Is liberalism killing the Copts?

One consequence of neo-liberal policies under Mubarak lead to religious ghettoisation of Egypt says author.

Egyptian copts
When a bomb exploded in a church in Alexandria, copts felt that their unspoken deal with Mubarak had gone ‘sour’  [EPA]

Cambridge, United Kingdom – On ‘bloody’ Sunday October 9th, about 20 Copts were crushed flat on the pavement by berserk military police and their armoured vehicles, seven shot dead, and 300 wounded in a bleak and larger-than-life take on Grand Theft Auto. Although endless streams of squashed brains and dismembered corpses lying in pools of blood inundated the social media landscape in what came down as the largest display of state violence after the glorious 18 days it took to bring down Mubarak, public opinion and the media insisted on referring to the Coptic casualties as dahaya, victims, of the incident. In stark contrast, despite the army’s refusal to disclose the names of the three casualties it claims to have incurred, public opinion has come to know them as shohada’, martyrs, term by which all loss of life since the start of the revolution has been alluded to.

This semantic detail points to the increasing social and political isolation of a brand of Coptic politics in Egypt. The Coptic ‘victims’ of the revolution had effortlessly achieved martyrdom. These men and women all died in the name of the Egyptian people, for a common political goal – be it justice, democracy or the demise of Mubarak. The couple of hundred Copts (and few Muslims) gathered in front of the state TV building at Maspero had no such public aim in mind. Their peaceful march was meant to ‘protest’ the burning of an annex building about to be converted into a church, but in reality – since the state had already started investigations about the criminals – their march simply endeavoured to reassert their difference, their right to be Coptic and not be punished for it; Coptic and proud, born this way, and willing to fight for their right to exist freely in Egypt.

As such, this march inscribed itself in a liberal project of identity politics – a politics based around the notion that irreducible differences occur naturally in society, that the interest-groups coalescing around them have specific needs and rights, which the state ought to protect against the tyrannical rule of the selfish majority. To many Third-World ‘minorities’, this type of contemporary Anglo-Saxon liberal thought represents a certain temptation, a flirtation with a distant, spectacular and utopian modernity that happens in Europe or in the United States. Copts are in no way immune to that dangerous attraction, particularly so considering the very high proportion of the Coptic diaspora living in Canada, the US or Europe. It is in that sense that liberalism is killing the Copts: in cheering them to embrace their estrangement from Egyptian society, to value their alienation as an end in itself, and to seek the legal support of the state in establishing their difference as a social fact.

The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) – which had been trying to suppress the exponential swelling of demonstrations in Egypt – couldn’t have prayed for a better opportunity to set an example: beating up on a minority that few would publicly defend was much more judicious than directly attacking the population at large. Mubarak had tried the latter tactic, and we all knew how he ended. But this only begs the question: why would no one, or very few, come to the defence of the Copts? The contrast in popular opinion is particular stark when compared to the general outcry generated by the bombing of the Church of the martyrs last year. Egyptians proved they could more than easily identify with the horror of other Egyptians dying in the middle of their religious celebrations. However, demonstrating for minority rights, parading to save the Christians, was mostly greeted with suspicion by the Egyptian street for it echoed a longer history of British and American liberal imperialism.

Saving the Christians of the East: Colonial legacies of liberal imperialism

‘Saving minorities’ such as ‘women’, or, in our case, ‘the Christians of the East’, from the bloodthirsty Mohamedans, has repeatedly emerged as a pillar of expansionist strategies for hungry Western elites – a constant since the early Crusades, be it for the Greeks at Navarino in 1827, the Bulgarians in 1877, Macedonians or Armenians around WWI. Imperial liberalism regularly appropriated and reinforced social, ethnic or religious differences for its own strategic management goals – the divide-and-rule principle – leaving behind a bitter taste of ‘difference’ as a mark of betrayal, as the threat of a nation within a nation, tighter with the ‘Christian West’ than with the ‘homeland.’ Brits or Belgians, notably, were reputed for using minorities as social buffers between themselves and their subject population – importing Indians in East Africa, co-opting Tutsis in Rwanda as ‘resident aliens’, or, to a lesser degree, Copts in Egypt.

Imperial liberalism not only reinforced lines of fracture in local social fabrics, but often engineered them, by inventing traditions and mythological pasts, linguistic and ethnic groupings. To this day a majority of Copts subscribe to the “Hamitic Hypothesis”: that Copts are a separate race with a separate language, that they are not Arabs but descendants of the pharaohs, the original Afro-Nilotic people of the land; in biblical terms, the accursed progeny of Ham rather than Sham. This theory was meant to explicate the presence of monuments and civilisation on the African continent where racist theory stated there should have been none. Hamites – the Tutsis, and the Abyssinians, as well as the Copts – were thus the white souls trapped in the accursed black bodies responsible for the mysterious and otherwise inexplicable traces of past civilisations on the Dark Continent. Through such constructs, Copts were not only bound to the West via their mobile religious affiliations but also through the more permanent idea of race. They were one solid step closer to civilised white Brits than to warmongering Arabs.

As Western liberals claimed to be saving minorities in foreign lands, they were in fact constantly creating the conditions for greater social and political isolation. These minorities would be perceived as even more ‘other’, more foreign eventually leading to their disappearance. Liberal imperial management strategies – such as the Hamitic hypothesis – played a fundamental role in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, or in the expulsion of Indians from East Africa. In Egypt, this legacy has managed to isolate Copts to the extent that emigration to Europe and North America has become their sole hope, exacerbated by the fact that the most educated Copts are given preferential access – allowing the superpowers to poach skilled Arabs for their job market without upsetting the fragile religious balance of their Christian democracies.


Beyond the context of colonialism or imperialism, this yawning gap between liberal rhetoric and behaviour, between its claim to safeguard difference and its actual generation of difference makes liberalism complicit in the production and hatred of otherness. In Europe, the rise of the far right along with its heavy anti-immigration, racist policies or, in the US, the continued oppression and segregation of black minorities under new guises – in prisons, job markets and ghettos – bear witness to the fact that in spite of a hyper-liberal political environment, or rather because of such a framework, identitarian and sectarian differences have continued to generate hatred, suffering and strife. By parading as a difference-friendly political system – liberalism distracts from the processes which accelerate social estrangement; it blinds to the conditions of production of different identities by insisting on their natural rights to existence.

It is this impossibility of asking why people feel so different, or experience each others as political strangers, that makes liberalism complicit in murder. From the standpoint of liberalism, the causes of difference – generally reduced to condescending simplifications such as poverty, ignorance or ‘backwardness’ – do not matter since the only relevant fact is that Copts are dying for no reason other than that they are different. Thus while leaving the conditions that generate social estrangement intact, panicked liberals will insist on containing the damages that difference can cause: like a driver pushing hard on the breaks to avoid running the car into a wall, only forgetting to remove the other foot from the accelerator first – creating lots of friction in the process and avoiding little in terms of accidents.

Yet, avoiding sectarianism will remain a fictive ideal without serious reflection on the causes that made religious difference politically relevant in Egypt. Why has the once sturdy social fabric tying up Copt with Muslim as simple neighbours disintegrated so badly in the past two decades? Part of the answer has to do with the colonial legacy that was exploited by Sadat and Mubarak’s regimes. Both encouraged sectarian tension for their own divide and rule purposes, by simultaneously playing up the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood while co-opting the more moderate fringes of ‘political Islam’ into the state apparatus. This not only gave them endless excuses to act upon the permanent state of emergency and systematically destroy any political alternative to themselves but also vested them with the moral arsenal of a dictator stumbling upon the scepter of the ayatollah. The threat of a civil war along sectarian lines allowed Mubarak in particular to simultaneously pass for the champion of true Islamic values and the guardian angel of the Copts. In exchange for protection against the straw man of the Brotherhood, and non-intervention in the affairs of the Church – like the controversial ban on divorce – the old regime was guaranteed a Coptic vote.

The unforeseen consequences of neo-liberalism

The latest nineties incarnation of liberalism – neoliberalism –  has created many new opportunities for social estrangement to take larger than life proportions, which neither Mubarak nor Western states foresaw and which stemmed directly from their policies. If engineering religious difference played a great part in the stability of the old regime for a couple of decades this divide and rule strategy also contributed to its demise. In late 2010, the bombing of the Church of Martyrs in Alexandria generated a sense of a deal gone sour, a promised peace and stability that Mubarak was now not in a position to guarantee, which contributed to the public taking to the street two months later. Mubarak’s loss of control over the difference card suggests that unforeseen processes came to bear on the ‘Coptic question’ abrupt dive for the worst from the nineties onwards, turning Mubarak’s cold-hearted engineering of sectarianism into a pyromaniac habit in dry terrain.

The American bombing of Libya and the First Gulf war, in 86 and 91, drove away millions of Egyptian migrant workers from ideologically “socialist”, “secular” states to the radically more conservative shores of the khalij and Saudi Arabia. These displaced migratory flows established connections between Egyptian workers and Wahabi sheikhs, eventually importing novel mores and norms to their homeland along with the remittances they managed to channel back home.

These liberal wars were accompanied by the very liberal media policies that Western commentators championed Mubarak for, most notably the democratisation of satellite TV. This allowed for the proliferation of private religious channels, betting on cheap, sensationalist, sectarian material to captivate audiences in a saturated entertainment market. Unknown sheikhs and priests from the rural depths of the country were propelled to overnight stardom for spewing venom at the other community, thus providing religious community leaders with incentives to play up the suffering of their own – Copts at the hands of Muslims and Muslims at the mercy of Western Christian imperialism – and play down the suffering of the other religious group. As rhetorical belligerence established itself as a new form of pious entertainment, battles over claims to victimhood slowly imposed its grip on growing fringes of ‘political Christianity’ and ‘political Islam’.

However, the most important and disregarded way in which liberalism is killing the Copts, in which it is making religious difference into a ‘question,’ has to do with the ‘rolling-back’ of the state, sponsored by the IMF-Washington-World Bank complex and espoused by a new Egyptian elite as a timely pretext to plunder the country’s resources under the guise of developmental ‘best practices.’ In the same fateful early nineties, the collapse of the Egyptian state in its basic welfare functions – through the implementation of Structural Adjustment Policies – created a vacuum in basic services, leaving ample room for free, religious supply-sources to take its place. Although Mubarak’s regime showed ‘zero tolerance’ for ‘political Islam’, it was more than happy to let social Islam and Christianity cope with the staggering inequalities resulting from its neoliberal policies.

As the Egyptian state drastically cut funding for education, healthcare, and social security, it fostered a fertile ground on which sectarian differences could grow rampant. The disintegration of the educational system, for instance, led to the shutting of many schools, particularly in rural areas, but also in more disadvantaged urban neighbourhoods. Children suddenly had to walk impossible distances – ranging in the dozens of kilometres – to attend classes, where parents, burdened by the triple work-shifts typical of labour-market flexibilisation policies, could not afford to accompany them to school. This situation quickly led to a proliferation of local volunteer-run schools cantered on neighbourhood churches and mosques. Although more convenient than their state counterparts, the growth of these religious educational service providers meant that a whole generation of Egyptians grew up without having any friends of the other religious group at school.

The situation outside the playground was no better. The trend of replacing state services with religious-based ones became the norm wherever the state failed in its basic functions, leading to a social space divided according to religious inclinations and institutions. A new breed of private Coptic and Muslim hospitals made their entrance on the medical scene as public health took an inevitable plunge downwards; while the ministry of social solidarity slowly agonised, charity donations via churches and mosques took on a paramount importance. In fact, many of the worst fears and tensions to emerge between the Christian and Muslim communities resulted from stories of conversion related to charity donations. A struggling Muslim would convert to Christianity to access their generous first-world Diaspora-funded community endowment, or, conversely a Copt would switch allegiances to obtain access to jobs, in-kind donations or decent loans.

The segregation forced by austerity measures and privatisation took on a social life of its own, Under this regime of higher unemployment and lower social benefits their was a strong temptation to blame religious bigotry and discrimination for personal failures at school, on the job or marriage markets, and subscribe to religious community stereotypes. Conversely, relying on religious networks for finding jobs, friends, or life partners became the norm. With the growth of petty criminality, the social isolation and precarious position of Copts became an exploitable asset for managing the risks of collusion and fraud, or to opportunistically get rid of competitors: business owners in need of a ‘trustworthy’ employee in sensitive positions – accountant for instance – would prefer to hire Copts, while small merchants would seize any religious feud – over conversion or an interfaith rape – to burn down Coptic shops and remove competitors from the market.

The unintended consequence of neo-liberal policy-making was the religious ghettoisation of Egyptian society; the birth of a social space divided, at a physical level, along religious lines; of a new generation of Egyptians coming of age today, which has grown up socialising, studying, playing, loving and eating exclusively with members of their own religious group, on which they further have depended, along with their families, for survival at a spiritual, social and material level. Sadly, too many people gained from this progressive crumbling of the Egyptian social fabric: religious leaders by acquiring more importance and control over their own sect, corporate media business tycoons by packaging it in a commercially appealing fashion, Mubarak’s clique by riding this gentle wave to remain in power.

Conclusion: desegregation and the welfare state

By the end of the 90s, Egypt had become the battleground of two competing diasporic conceptions of modernity. On the one hand, Copts and their Western, Christian leanings and liberal-agenda funding; on the other, Muslim migrant workers and their Arabian networks, Wahabi penchants and charity flows destined to promote political Islam. Both represented fantasies of a “modern” Egypt, a rich, successful, smart-phone and skyscraper-friendly polity.  Between these two poles, the majority of the Egyptian population lingered, torn between the temptations of identity politics and the stubborn suspicion of difference, as a tool of manipulation and social control. Their main line of defence against the spread of ‘sectarian thinking’ has been a strange sort of counter-performance of unity. “We’re all Egyptian, neighbours, and friends. I celebrate Ramadan with Christian friends, and they Christmas with us. We’re all one.” But this counter-performance of unity sounds less plausible with each child raised in a religiously segregated society, with each new attack against the Coptic community.

I am far from arguing for a return to a mythological past national unity, or for a vision of any kind of peaceful human nature. However, it is crucial to bring attention to the fact that differences are infinite in society and that they acquire political visibility – they become salient in political discourse – under specific conditions. There might be more differences – genetic, social, psychological, economic – between two white men, than between a black and a white man, or between two Muslims than between a Copt and a Muslim. It took an immense scientific, medical, legal, religious, policing and military apparatus to actually establish the notion of “race”, and believing that lobbying the state to defend this construction, proudly, could amount to any good is close to delusional.

The real struggle would lay in undoing the construction of race or ethnicity, in neutralising the political use of identitarian differences in social life and public discourse. In a sense, this is what liberalism pretends to aim for, although superficially, by guaranteeing minority rights in a quasi-permanent constitution: the removal of difference from everyday politics, its naturalisation. But this perspective gives up on eroding differences, on analysing their conditions of production, their history, and simply accepts them as a premise of the political. The most one can do is tame the negative effects of difference through checks and balances, judiciary oversight of the hungry majority. Such a view concedes defeat as a starting point, and that one can hope to do better by tackling the conditions under which difference ascended to political saliency.

Such a markedly less liberal approach to the Coptic question shifts the focus from protecting difference to diminishing its importance; from a blind defence of otherness to eradicating its conditions of production; from entrenching minority rights, i.e. Coptic interests, to demanding the de-ghettoisation of Egyptian society through the reestablishment of a common welfare state and civic identity. Egyptians must make sure Coptic and Muslim children can attend the same school, that Mohammed and Mina can be treated in the same hospital, by the same doctor, that pensioners do not have rely on Islamic funds or Church alms but can count on the same social security system.

This focus on the reestablishment of the basic functions of the welfare state would only be a first step in bridging the Coptic enclaves that have formed in the midst of society. At some point, other pressing issues, such as the tangle of thorns that the question of civil marriage has become, will have to be tackled – interfaith marriages being another fundamental tool in the desegregation of the social fabric. And a good dose of patience. It took a whole generation to generate enough estrangement for religious difference to turn into the Coptic question. It will take a similar length of time to build bonds of friendship and community ties where such differences stop mattering.

Marc Michael is a PhD at Cambridge University and specialises on the Egyptian development industry.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy