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How Not to Understand Egypt’s Sectarianism

[The aftermath of the explosion in a chapel inside the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of Abbasiyya in Cairo, Egypt on 11 December 2016. Photo by Jonathan Rashad] [The aftermath of the explosion in a chapel inside the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of Abbasiyya in Cairo, Egypt on 11 December 2016. Photo by Jonathan Rashad]

Just one day before the horrifying attack upon the Botroseyya Church in Abbasiyya that took the lives of two dozen Coptic Christians, mere steps away from Cairo’s Coptic Cathedral and Papal Headquarters, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth issued a provocative tweet. Commenting on an article in Foreign Policy he was circulating, he wrote, “Egypt’s Copts discover after backing Sisi’s coup that his persecution isn’t limited to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Needless to say, it is a rare spectacle for the head of an international human rights organization to take an entire endangered national minority to task. But what is particularly useful about Roth’s tweet in the wake of arguably the most significant instance of sectarian violence in modern Egyptian history is that it offers an object lesson about precisely how not to understand the Coptic community and their relations with Egyptian Muslims and the Egyptian state. Indeed, as I will argue here, to accept the logic of Roth’s statement is to embrace the very sectarian logic of governance that continues to prevail in Egypt under Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi – a sectarian logic that makes the violence we have witnessed of late more rather than less likely.

The key assumption that undergirds Roth’s statement is that the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch Tawadros – who indisputably supported the coup and, indeed, stood at Sisi’s side as he announced it – is the political representative of Egypt’s Copts. This assumption might seem uncontroversial to those who have observed Egyptian politics over the past several decades, because the Egyptian state has long regarded the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch as not simply the spiritual leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox, but also as the chief intermediary for Copts in the political landscape. This political partnership between state and clergy is the culmination of the staggering success of both sides – but particularly the clergy – in utterly marginalizing any lay leadership that might exist within the Coptic community.

There are at least a couple of problems with such an arrangement for the representation of Coptic Christians in Egyptian politics. The first, of course, is that the Coptic Orthodox Church is not a democratic or, for that matter, properly political institution, and cannot legitimately purport to represent the interests of all Copts in Egypt. What of Coptic Catholics and Protestants? What of those Copts for whom faith is not central to their identity or their existence? And what of those Coptic women who are systematically excluded from the church’s precincts of power?

Perhaps the more glaring problem in the wake of the Botroseyya Church attack, though, is that structuring political representation in this way – through self-consciously and, indeed, enthusiastically sectarian institutions – invariably intensifies sectarian political divides in contemporary Egypt. The longstanding habit of viewing the Coptic Patriarch as not only a spiritual but also a political leader gives a dangerously existential edge to the mediation of Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt.

Of course, there are powerful interests arrayed in support of this sectarian structure of governance – not least a military regime that finds it convenient to keep the Coptic question suppressed under the weight of the Coptic clerical establishment. In the face of these powerful interests, the least we can do to undermine Egyptian sectarianism is to refuse to normalize it. That would mean refusing to identify “Egypt’s Copts” as an undifferentiated mass of Christians with a singular political position or worldview. That would mean refusing to attribute to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch the political role he is assumed to hold. And that would mean extending our solidarity to all Egyptians – both Copts and Muslims – who find themselves at the margins, subject to the violence of the state or of extremists.

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