This site is no longer active. Please click here for details.

Egyptian Coptic Christians march during a protest in Cairo (Reuters file)

The celebration of Coptic Easter this week sheds light on a significant political problem awaiting Egypt. While Coptic Christians are in the midst of celebrating a major holiday, prominent Islamists are debating whether or not it is a sin to greet Copts on their holiday. This is a far cry from the Egyptian tradition of Muslims and Christians taking part in or commemorating each others’ high holidays.

The controversy is yet another sign that the Islamists in power do not understand the nature of Egypt, a country whose existence as a functioning nation requires consensus among its various communities. And in the modern age, equality between Muslims and non-Muslims is one of the most important shared values.

Politicians and clerics behind the most recent divisive sectarian statements forget that the principle of complete equality was born out of necessity in 1919 as a concession that the Muslim majority had to make to the Copts for the nation to survive.

The intolerant and insensitive discourse comes less than a month after the most traumatic attack on the Coptic Orthodox Church. In April, a group of extremists attacked the seat of the Church, a compound in central Cairo, where hundreds were gathered for the funerals of five men killed in earlier sectarian clashes over offensive graffiti written on a mosque, allegedly done by a group of young Copts.

“The dilemma faced by the Copts encapsulates in a sense the experience of a large segment of Egyptian society in the current political environment.” – Khairi Abaza

Both the target and the intensity of the April attack were unprecedented. After the assault on their most sacred site, the Coptic community feels further alienated in an increasingly divided Egypt. The dilemma faced by the Copts encapsulates in a sense the experience of a large segment of Egyptian society in the current political environment. As demonstrated by the daily nationwide protests, many in the bureaucracy, non-Islamist parties, revolutionary youth groups, and much of civil society are against the country’s new rulers and their authoritarian tendencies.

An anti-government protester holds a Christian Cross and a copy of the Quran at a rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square December 12, 2012. (Reuters)

Egyptians feel they live in an alarmingly polarized society, and a broad consensus is the only way for the country to move forward.

Throughout history, despite the clichés about iron-fisted despots, even the most repressive rulers had to rely on an established consensus between Egyptian society-at-large and interest groups. In the modern age, these include the bureaucracy, judiciary, unions, the Azhar (the country’s Islamic authority), and the Coptic Church, to name a few. With its two millennia of existence, the Coptic Church is of particular importance as the oldest surviving Egyptian institution.

The tenet of national consensus in governance is fundamental, but not codified; no government can function without it, and any attempt to consolidate power or establish a new consensus must be gradual. The last two major regime changes in Egypt’s history each took about a decade to establish a new order. The first came in the early 1800s when Mohamed Ali Pasha founded modern Egypt, and the second in 1952 when Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the constitutional monarchy. In both cases, the rulers dismantled the previous order, but gradually created a new one over the course of several years.

As Egypt undergoes its third regime change in modern history under the direction of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), its leadership fails to recognize the importance of rule backed by consensus, instead rapidly assuming control of Egypt on its own. The faster it tries to do so, the faster the backlash. Ten months after rising to power, the MB is proving that it is not conducive to stability. On the contrary, as time passes, Egypt slides closer toward instability and chaos. The economy is in ruin, parts of Sinai are beyond the government’s control, crime is increasing, daily protests create instability on the streets, and last but not least, sectarian violence is dangerously on the rise.

Coptic Christians run from tear gas fired by police outside of their main cathedral during clashes with Muslims in Cairo, April 7, 2013. (Reuters)

Accordingly, for the first time since Mohamed Ali emancipated non-Muslims into the fabric of a supra-sectarian Egyptian national identity, Copts feel that Egypt is being built anew on a foundation from which they are excluded. Together with non-Islamists and women, the Copts and other Christians were left out of the constitutional drafting process that the Islamists insisted on promulgating.

One of the pillars of consensus that built modern Egypt two centuries ago was the emancipation of minorities. After the assassination of the second Christian prime minister in 1910, sectarian tensions escalated. By 1919, Saad Zaghlul Pasha, leader of the nationalist movement against the British, was able to reestablish national unity, launching a slogan that would remain the basis of Egyptian citizenship: “Religion belongs to God, and the Nation belongs to all.” Even as Coptic rights were being eroded well into the Mubarak era, this principle and slogan were reiterated often, and coexistence endured.

Today, the Brotherhood fails to understand the importance of this unwritten tenet of consensus with the Copts, as well as other groups and institutions. As such, a new Egypt is being built upon a shaky foundation. The issue of the constitution was a turning point that demonstrated the lack of consensus, alienating large segments of the society.

An Egypt in which one group seeks to dominate all others without consensus will not function. The stubborn facts on the ground prove that consensus is still the only viable option. Sooner or later, the MB will realize this, but at what cost?

This post was originally published on Fikra Forum.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

Khairi Abaza

Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC.


  1. Prof. J. Ndluli

    May 12, 2013

    If there is no willingness to change (MB), then change will not take place. Reality is that a ‘political window of opportunity’ is passing and it’s time to engage more stakeholders in the democratic process. Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced that the USA would provide $250 million in assistance to Egypt. However, Kerry didn’t mention any specific political commitments the Egyptian president had made to receive the aid. If there were no such stipulations made – then this is an opportunity lost. US voters need to pressure their politicians to address this issue by making “minority rights” a part of any aid package.

  2. Daniel Mariscal

    May 12, 2013

    knows that genius resides outside of the box. “The unification of The Testament Of The Voice of God (1. Adam, 2. Noah, 3. Abraham, 4. Moses. 5. David. 6. Zarathustra. 7. Buddha. 8. Jesus. 9. Mohammad. 10. Odin. 11. Da Vinci. 12. Me.) is fundamental to the realization of existence of The KINGDOM of God on Earth, (1. Monotheistic Paganism is the belief in a singular God, his Oracle and the servants of The Oracle. 2. Hinduism. 3. Judaism. 4. Zorastranism. 5. The Dharmas. 6. Christianity. 7. Islam.), the acceptance of this concept will encourage the basis for the potentiality of World Peace, and empathy amongst the Tribes of Adam.”

  3. Hatem Zaki

    May 11, 2013

    the current authority doesn’t belong to Egypt .they marginalize most social sectors in Egypt .so we have to know that Egypt & Islam are larger than them .the tolerant historical Islam is different from their radical Islam


Add comment