Coptic Youth: From Street Politics to Church Politics

By Mina Ibrahim
Submitted to Session P4751 (Spaces of Youth Political Engagement Six Years after the 2011 Uprisings, 2017 Annual Meeting
After the 2011 uprising in Egypt, there was a surge of interest in minority youth, especially Egyptian Copts. Scholarship on Coptic activism tended to focus on ways youth were making their faith and minority identity “visible” in the streets and in the media. With the crackdowns on public spaces and the retreat of Copts and all groups out of the streets, the nature of Coptic political activism changed. In this paper, instead of looking at Copts’ visible political engagement, which has been systematically repressed after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, I will look at the less visible struggles taking place within the Church and how these are emerging as sites of Coptic activism.

To begin, young Copts, who initiated movements, protests, and sit-ins as part of the January 25, 2011 uprising, were not only contesting many years of marginalization and discrimination from the Egyptian society. They were also challenging the centralized socialization processes of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate. For decades, the latter has been organizing programs and gatherings for its young congregants with the purpose of teaching and convincing them that the “church” is the only “safe haven.” In the past few years, however, a critical mass of young Coptic university students and graduates living in urban Cairo have withdrawn from the official activities of the Coptic Church’s clerical order and been engaged in critiques of the Church establishment and of its official spiritual meetings. Moreover, these young Copts have started to hold alternative understandings of and approaches to their prayers and Bible readings in addition to the everyday and ongoing discussions about their religious lives and experiences.

This paper anthropologically investigates the current nature of young Copts’ political engagement amid an atmosphere of extensive repression and power struggles between the generations. Through ethnographic fieldwork and semi- structured interviews, it looks at how modes of piety are debated and questioned within the Coptic Church. The paper also examines how, after the crackdowns following the 2011 uprising, Coptic youth turned their political energies to facets of worship rather than street marches and public political campaigns.