“Motherland Lost”

The Egyptian writer and intellectual Salama Moussa wrote toward the end of his life “I returned to the Coptic Orthodox Church with affection, finding in her our tormented and broken history“. It is an odd statement from a man who was a confirmed atheist, a believer in scientific progress, a frequent castigator of superstition in all religions, and one who espoused the “National” project of the intra-war years which sought to downplay religious identity in favor of a larger Egyptian identity. But we need not see this statement as an expression of regret, nor a conversion, nor even a tragic thought, but rather as a succinct definition of the existential realities of Copts in Egypt, of the inevitability of ending up a Copt even if a larger and more universal identity is sought and seemingly achieved.

Nor were such sentiments limited to an intellectual such as Moussa. Rushdi Said (1920-2013), the eminent Egyptian geologist, who took up geology at the recommendation of Salama Moussa, and who did much to map Egypt’s natural resources in the 20th century, also expressed similar feelings.  A thoroughly secular Copt who rose high in government service in the 1960s and 1970s (but never as high as his talents would warrant) wrote in his autobiography “Science and Politics in Egypt” of how he always felt as “the other”, and how in the terrible summer of 1981, at age 61, he was forced to immigrate to the US because Sadat accused him of agitating for a Coptic state. In the last three decades of his life he began to come to grips with his Coptic identity, even as he and his family became ever more estranged from Egypt. In a moving episode that only real life can provide, Rushdi Said’s favorite and close brother was a convert to Islam.

Samuel Tadros’  “Motherland Lost, The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity” is in many ways a restatement of Moussa’s declaration. It is an excellent book, but one that is difficult to classify. It warrants multiple readings on account of its kaleidoscopic nature. It is not a history of the Copts, although it provides a precise and scholarly thumbnail of 2000 years of their unique history. It is not a work of political science, although any scholar of Egypt’s recent turbulent history would benefit enormously from reading it. It is a work of intellectual history of Egypt’s struggle with modernity, and although claiming to focus on the Copts, it in fact provides great many insights into the nature and origin of political Islamism. Its most powerful appeal is more universal than just the “Coptic question”, as it is a meditation on identity from a young scholar who remains in search of an ultimate destination, having made the arc from the political left to the right and yet retained a principled belief in liberalism. He is of that generation of young Egyptians who were born after the last Egyptian-Israeli war when Egypt was exhausted by wars and grandiose projects and ready to settle for long decades of dull authoritarian governance. These Egyptians grew in the monochrome decades when all presidents were Mubarak, all political opposition was frivolous or Islamist and all Popes were named Shenouda. It is heartening that there are young Egyptians such as Tadros, and many others, who look beyond the facade and try an understanding of Egypt’s painful history.

The book is divided into seven chapters. The first deals with the rise of Christianity in Egypt and the second of how Copts fared under Islam. In 47 pages the author provides a readable summary of these monumental events which, although it breaks no new grounds, is useful for the general reader who is unfamiliar with the pre-modern history of Egypt. The next four chapters (chapters three through six) deal with Egypt’s modernization project and form the heart of the book. Tadros restates this history in a fresh way, and one that will guarantee years of discussion and attempts at rebuttal. Such rebuttals will have to face the thorough research and solid reasoning of these chapters.

The chapters describe the four features of the modernization project that has condemned it to failure leaving Egypt slipping further behind the advanced West. First, the project was imposed on the mass of Egyptians by the ruler’s fiat, leaving them unconvinced and suspicious of its motives. Second, the propagators of the project were never independent actors but always relied on the ruler’s vision of modernity thus creating an elite class that justified authoritarianism in the service of development. Third, the search for modernity demanded a new “Egyptian” identity that transcended the religious divide between Muslim and Copts. That attempt, while laudable in goal, did in fact back fire, thus allowing the project of political Islam to seize both the initiative and the imagination of many in the country, yet provide no blue print for governance and development. Fourth, that those identified as “liberals” in Egypt lack a commitment to liberal principles and, in fact, are always ready to sacrifice such principles for immediate gains. Tadros attacks the myth of the “liberal age” in Egypt head on, insisting that it was never as liberal as it is often described, and that the ills of military rule and political Islamism were in fact its progeny as well as it enemies. Even for those not inclined to agree with this thesis, the rich details in those chapters represent an enlightening exposition of Egypt’s modern history.

This is a damning and somewhat pessimistic picture. The trouble is that it is difficult to dismiss. Tadros wrote his book well before the removal of President Morsi, so now much of it appears prophetic. He provides an accurate diagnosis of the disease but no ready remedy. The January 2011 revolution was, for him, doomed by its lack of solid ideas and a plan, yet the regime it attempted to overthrow was also doomed by its contradictions and sclerosis. Tadros is not the man to seek for a rosy prognosis. But again, perhaps a rosy prognosis is not what Egypt most needs today.

The last chapter deals with the Coptic modernization movements, especially the Sunday School movement, and how the Copts fared in Egypt as Islamists began to set the social agenda. Egyptians are constantly looking for external models of authentic development. For example, the so-called “Turkish model” was popular for a bit of time before it showed its cracks. Ironically the most relevant modernization effort might exist immediately at hand with the example of the Copts who have managed an imperfect but more or less workable modernization effort. The trouble is that through these efforts the Copts acquired, in a fit of absent-mindedness as it were, a national identity. That identity is so closely linked with the historical ancient Egyptian identity that it remains both a beacon and a threat. Almost every demonstration by Copts today includes the intertwining of the pagan Ankh with the Christian Cross, which makes it easy for Islamist to paint a sinister picture of their demands for religious freedom and respect for their identity as an attempt at “forming their own state”. The increased immigration has created a large number of non-Egyptian Copts who have a strong attachment to both this identity as well as loyalty to their newly adopted countries. The agitation of these immigrant Copts is particularly galling for Islamists, who have singled these “Aqbat Al Mahgar” for special abuse and as the targets of ludicrous conspiracy theories. Egyptians have yet to accept something resembling the always-evolving American settlement of identity issues. The Islamist are especially keen to prevent Egyptians from assuming multiple overlapping identities. It is easy to conclude after reading that the chapter that the problems Copts face in Egypt today are manifestations of a larger national problem, acting, in effect, as “canaries in the mine”. It is easy for “experts” to get Egypt wrong if the country is viewed solely through the lens of strategic relationships and larger Middle Eastern issues.

The conclusion of the book “The Bitterness of leaving, The Peril of staying” provides no easy resolution. It anticipates a day when the center of gravity of the Coptic Church might shift outside Egypt, yet the Copts’ identity remains firmly Egyptian. It is inconceivable that they might replicate the fate of Jews, but immigration always beckons with the pull of opportunity and the push of persecution. The reality of course is that Egypt is not about to become empty of Copts, especially as political Islam does not seek their physical elimination. More painful than contemplating how Copts might fare when shorn of Egypt is the thought of how Egypt might fare when shorn of the Copts.

— Maged Atiya



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