From Citizenship to Protection in Egyptian Public Life: The Role of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Modern Sectarianism

By Paul Sedra
Submitted to Session P4874 (Excavating Memories of Minorities in the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
Most discernibly since the 1970s, the language of citizenship has given way in Egyptian public life to a language of protection in which, perhaps ironically, all of the principal players in sectarian disputes – the state, the Coptic Orthodox Church, human rights organizations, and the Muslim Brotherhood – have indulged and engaged. This notion of protection conjures up an image of Coptic Christians in Egypt as an inert, monolithic bloc – a bloc whose leadership is assumed to reside with the Church. With increased indulgence and engagement in this language of protection, the notion of Copts as Egyptian citizens, equal before Egyptian law and the Egyptian state to Muslims, has tended to fall away.

As a result, Copts are widely conceived not so much as equal citizens but as a distinctly sectarian constituency in Egyptian society. What has changed most discernibly since the January 25 revolution is that the pretense of equal citizenship has been replaced by what one might call a layered paternalism towards the Coptic community: the Egyptian state potently declares its commitment to protect the Copts in no less important an event than the Christmas mass of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and the patriarch welcomes that stated commitment as an endorsement of his own paternal role over the community.

For most external observers of Egyptian politics, Copts are regarded as victims in the process of sectarianization described above. This paper draws upon a wide range of primary sources, recently made available to scholars through the digitzation efforts of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, to recount how the leaders of the modern Coptic Orthodox Church have, in fact, embraced this sectarianization. Specifically, a close analysis of the minutes of the modern Coptic communal council or majlis al-milli will reveal the great success of the Coptic clergy, at least since the 1950s, in partnering with the Egyptian state to weaken lay or civilian leaders within the Coptic community – very much to the detriment of equal citizenship in Egypt.

For the state, Copts are regarded as a constituency best left in the hands of the Coptic Orthodox Church, as per the long-established pattern of Egyptian presidents relying upon Coptic patriarchs to ensure that the Coptic community remains politically quiescent. The Church remains satisfied with this role as long as the state respects the patriarch’s prerogatives as the sole legitimate representative of the Coptic community.