The early Ninth Century CE was a terrible time for Egyptians, a concluding time of a sequence of revolts. The Arab armies arrived in the middle of the Seventh Century, and Egypt became a province of the rising empire governed from the Levant. A hundred years later the center of the Islamic empire moved east, and the occupation was closer to the Persian invasion of more than a century earlier, rapacious and intolerant. Faith, and to a lesser extent money, moved the mostly Christian population of Egypt to revolt. In a series of encounters known as the “Bashmuric Revolts”, the overlords from Baghdad sent in central Asian mercenaries to put down the revolts with predicable violence; killing, enslavement and mass burning of Churches and Monasteries followed. By the middle of the Ninth Century the native Copts had given up all armed resistance. Never again would Copts resort to force to defend themselves, no matter how great the oppression. The scale of the physical damage would only be rivaled by the riots of the 14th Century, and 2013, in the wake of the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood President, Morsi.
Some of these events paint a fascinating miniature of the complex relationships between faiths and their histories in Egypt. One burnt Church, St Michael in old Fustat, was either bought or appropriated by a group of local Jews around 880 CE. It became the Ezra Synagogue, a center of Jewish life in Egypt for more than a thousand years thereafter. Rarely have Churches been forcibly changed to Synagogues; Ezra is an unusual specimen. The Synagogue contained a “Genizah”, or a store room for discarded documents carrying the name of God, and hence not candidates for destruction. The accumulated treasure paints a picture of Jewish life in Egypt and the region throughout the Crusades and Middle Ages. The Jews of Egypt were globalists. The community was in the hub of trade from Andalusia in the West to India in the East. Equally telling is the absence of Copts in these documents, for although Egypt remained mostly Christians for centuries afterward, the Christians of Egypt closed in on themselves, hemmed in by Muslim rulers and a West that regarded them as heretics. The Genizah records were “discovered” in the 1890s, and the events around that are telling of the varying fortunes of Jews and Copts for the next century.
In the beginning of the 19th Century Egypt began to attract new Jews and Christians. In the case of Jews, it was Ottoman and European Jews who came to work with Egypt’s modernization efforts. They arrived with substantial social capital, far above their impoverished Egyptian relatives. The removal of the Genizah records to Europe was the occasion for protests by Egyptian Jews, who resented the newcomers’ high handed ways. In time, however, Egyptian Jews became absorbed into the new elite, by both marriage and business. When the Jewish exodus from Egypt began in 1948, there was little difference between those whose roots ran back decades or centuries. All left together.
The fortunes of the Copts took a radically different road. The arrival of the British Church Missionary Society (CMS) had a largely positive impact on the Copts. But fifty years later, in the 1850s, came a new breed of missionaries, American Evangelicals. They viewed the Orthodox Copts as derelict Christians and sought to convert all of them to Protestantism. The Orthodox Church faced a threat as great as the Asian armies of centuries ago. It was entirely possible to imagine the Orthodox creed becoming an antique and vanishing vestige, as Copts saw the superior benefits of Protestant education and advancement. In fact, that did not happen. The Protestant threat became an occasion for reform, the vast majority of Egyptian Christians remained in the Orthodox creed, and the Church tied its fortunes closely to the rising Egyptian nationalism. It is not an exaggeration to state that Copts sacralize the land of Egypt as much as the Jews do the Holy Land. The Evangelical Christians became a part of native Egyptian Christianity rather than the other way around.
The establishment of Israel was the proximate cause for the departure of the Jews from Egypt, but the ultimate causes were both nativism and political Islam. The majority of Copts engaged in one and rejected the other, without noting the contradiction involved. It was left to another migration, that of Copts to North America and Australia, to highlight those contradictions. In an odd twist of fate, a term normally associated with Jews, “Diaspora”, is now contested among Copts. Some accept it, others reject it. Both positions freighted with historical and social consequences.
When it comes to faith, land and history, peoples invariably find themselves as threads in a wider weave. Hegemony and exceptionalism do little but rend the fabric.
— Maged Atiya
Throughout the 1960s the Egyptian government sponsored a special celebration every July 23 in honor of the children born on that day. In Cairo, the celebration was at the old Rivoli Cinema. The routine was set and unchanging from year to year. It started with the 1 year olds, brought to the stage by their beaming mothers, then 2 year olds, and so on in increasing order of age. The grand finale was the march of those born exactly on July 23 1952, who dashed up to the stage to receive their certificates. By the time of the last such celebration in 1967, those “sons of the revolution” were surly 15 year old adolescents and no longer charming young boys. The affair was sad and ramshackle, like the city outside steeped in defeat. The cinema had a half-built brick blast wall that seemed to do little but obscure the once grand entrance. Revolutions, like boys, grow older, and without effort or accretion of knowledge, promise inevitably turns to disappointment.
On the fourth anniversary of the January 2011 uprising many have mourned the fact that the young revolutionaries were largely sidelined, with some even in jail. They advanced the dreams of an alternative path where the young would now be ruling, the country free, the old regime entirely upended, and the vigor of youth leading Egypt forward. None have noted that Egypt had experienced one such outcome, in 1952, where young men came to power, upended the old regime, and attempted to govern by the dent of a spirit of revolution and without any discernible program. The young men who came to power brandished promises of Ishtirakiya, Hurreyia, Demokratia (Socialism, Freedom, and Democracy). In fact they brought forth a repressive regime where mouthing these slogans in the wrong order earned one a beating. The repression and paranoia of the Free Officers regime was rooted in a variety of societal factors, but also in the lack of a governing vision. The 1952 revolution had no defining document such as the 1776 American declaration which put forth a concise definition of appropriate governance and a legal case for revolt. The best 1952 could do was the flowery words of Anwar El Sadat, who sonorously intoned a mixture of platitudes and intimations of conspiracies. There was more than a faint echo in 2011.
The 1952 revolutionaries detested politics. They strove to destroy the old political elite, on the correct charges that they were inept and sometime corrupt. But in the absence of politicians what rose was leadership by charisma and unchecked power; by men who insisted they are too pure for politics, and that their purity justified coercing others to their views. Anyone who challenged their methods or actions belonged to the discredited “feudal” classes. Nasser may have lifted land reform policies from Mirrit Ghali, but he could not tolerate the man in his cabinet. This propensity to demonize politics and refusal to honor differing views is also apparent in the 2011 edition of revolution. The grating word “felool” was hurled easily, and after July 3 the preferred term was “coup supporter” or “Fascist”.
Egypt of course experienced many “revolutions” in the past two centuries. All have failed to bridge the economic and social gap between the country and the global world, and even within Egypt, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow. The death of revolutions comes in many forms. The ‘Urabi revolution died in the quick defeat of his forces at the hands of a British expedition, in his humiliating barefoot surrender, and his ultimate disillusion with his actions. The 1919 revolution died at the hands of anti-liberal forces, as well as the paradox of the slogan “Egypt for Egyptians” mouthed by an elite that had little trust in the people (perhaps with good reasons). The 1952 revolution was in deep trouble by the mid-1960s, but got a quick shove from the 1967 defeat. The 2011 revolution died many deaths; by the anarchic violence in the fall of 2011, by the farcical Parliament brought forth by free elections, by the chaotic and rule-free Presidential elections of 2012, the lack of a constitution, and by the loss of nerve on part of the people who could not detect in Morsi’s rule the end-game of Islamism’s profound lack of a workable governing philosophy.
Cromer hurled the withering, and incorrect, charge against Egyptians as incapable of organized planning. Mirrit Ghali refined that by focusing it on the ruling elite. Actually, the appropriate analogy comes from the American film “Cool Hand Luke”, where the protagonist, Paul Newman, resists an oppressive order with nothing more than his courage. He builds no rapport with other prisoners, even when they profess admiration for him, and does not negotiate for any tangible improvement in the prison camp. The alpha prisoner, George Kennedy, admires Luke, insisting that “nothing can be a cool hand”. In the end, however, nothing can’t beat the established oppressive order. Luke is broken by the repeated brutality of the guards and pleads for mercy on the promise of never attempting to revolt. The other prisoners walk away from him. Luke, it seems, wasted his courage and the trust of others by his utter lack of discipline. He came at them with nothing.
Nasser always insisted that 1952 revolution continues, especially during difficult days. The wily Egyptians largely chalked that up to brave talk, and walked away. Something like this is happening today. Whether wisdom or additional suffering will emerge from this chaos remains unknown.
— Maged Atiya
Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is Dead” is an ambiguous meditation on how modernity may have killed Man’s connection to the sacred and the source of absolute ethical principles. More than a century later it seems that the sacred has returned to unleash vengeance on modernity. Nowhere is this more visible than in the dramatic rise in the use of the quaint term “blasphemy”.
“Blasphemy” was first used as Europe was emerging into the Renaissance. “Pheme” is the Greek word for utterance, while the meaning of “blas” remains uncertain, probably a derivation of “hurt”. It seems fitting to define blasphemy as hurtful speech. But to whom?
The faithful of many religions will insist that blasphemy is the act of insulting God. And here we must again quote Nietzsche, “is not the greatness of the deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods to appear worthy of it?” There is simply no way to reconcile the belief that mere human words can insult God with faith in his power. Leveling accusations of blasphemy remains, paradoxically, the greatest of all blasphemies.
— Maged Atiya
The visit of President Abdul Al Fattah Al Sisi to the St Mark Cathedral during the celebration of the liturgy of Coptic Christmas Eve evoked the expected commentary. Much of it reflected the views of the commentators, and their take on the current regime, than the reality of where Egypt, and the region, are today on interfaith relationship.
The visit was also symptomatic of today’s Egypt, improvised, somewhat clumsy but possibly sincerely felt. There was a certain cringe factor in seeing a President, and a former General, assuming the Microphone during a liturgy at the altar of the See of St Mark the Apostle. On the other hand, as historian Samuel Tadros noted, Copts must have felt like citizens even for one day. In any case, Pope Tawadros II, has given fulsome support to the current regime, reflecting both his personal views, and likely the views of the majority of Church officials and laity. The Pope, who assumed the throne of St Mark just two years ago, has proven to be a capable, even slightly visionary, administrator of ecclesiastical affairs, and a problematic commentator on current politics. His remarks reflect the mainstream views of many of Egypt’s elite of his age and status, although it must be said that this mainstream sometimes runs paradoxically uphill against the gravity of both facts and logic. As one Egyptian-American noted, we should have enough respect for Copts to criticize what is perceived as poor choices.
Pulling back from the personalities and turmoil of current Egyptian politics, one must ask what the comments would have been had Sisi not visited the Cathedral, or whether after 40 years of the Islamization of the public sphere, any more could have been expected. Since 1911 the Copts have ratcheted demands for full citizenship rights downward, as they progressively gotten less with each cycle. Today, they are happy just to be visited during the occasion of the birth of their Savior, and not listen to Fatwas declaring that good wishes to Christians contradict the letter and the spirit of Islam. The Copts, who now make 75% of the region’s Christians, have taken a different road from the majority of Eastern Christians, and the horrors inflicted on them have been significantly less. While this empirical fact should not be a reason to demand less than full rights for Egyptian Christians, it should color comments on what one American historian privately called “the daunting and exhausting issue of Copts in Egypt”.
The visit comes days after Sisi insisted to an audience of Azharis, on the occasion of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, that 1.5 Billion Muslims should not set themselves against the other 80% of the human race, and that a “revolution in religion” is necessary. While some will insist that these are words without patent action, few will recall that Sadat’s words in the opposite direction 40 years ago, also without patent action, inflamed the public sphere. Words do matter in the short term, while realistic improvements are invariably long-term.
There are plenty of disappointments about the course of events in today’s Egypt. Some are disappointed that it has not emerged as full-fledged Islamist “democracy”. Others are disappointed that is has not followed the “Tunisian model”, ignoring the differences between the two societies. Yet, for all the sadness of the violence accompanying the 2011 revolution and its aftermath, and for all concerns about the current bout of nasty Hyper-nationalism, the bloodletting has been much less than the surrounding region, and those in power remain nominally committed to the idea of a shored-up state based on citizenship and away from sectarian violence that characterizes the relationship between faiths, and within Islam in the Levant. It is fair to wonder why the demand for less sectarianism should be coupled to tolerance for autocracy. But once the question is posed, we should not shrink from the disappointing answer.
It is not bigotry of low expectations to find some light in a faint gesture, even if the reality remains difficult. The best one can say about Egypt today is that the climb, steep as it is, follows a different path from the surrounding region. Egypt, and its Christians who remain an essential and faithful facsimile of it, may yet plod through.
— Maged Atiya