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October 25, 2011

 Interior of a school, Cairo, by John Frederick Lewis; 1865

ONE COPTIC FRIEND tweeted, arguing that the Coptic Problem will be sorted out with more education – as the level of illiteracy falls in Egypt within the Muslim majority it will be set free from its traditional prejudice, and we will be able to convince it of the justice of our cause and the wrongs of its ways. The idea that Egypt will progress along the path of civilisation and its performance in respecting the human rights of its sons as it becomes more literate holds an attractive appeal – it gives hope; or does it?

EGYPT HAS a very high illiteracy rate – 34% of its 15+ year adult population can’t read or write,[i] testimony to the failures of the 23 July Revolution and its various military rulers since 1952.[ii] As Egypt’s adult population (15+ years) in 2001 is estimated at 56 million, the total number of illiterate adults in Egypt who can’t read or write approaches the alarming figure of 19 million.[iii] It is evident that illiteracy in Egypt is high and represents a major problem. It will not, e.g., – together with poverty which is also widespread in Egypt –[iv] help the level of political participation by Egyptians if some sort of democracy is eventually introduced there. Illiteracy, however, should not be seen as having significant impact on lowering the level of anticoptism in Egypt.[v]  Nineteen million illiterate Egyptian adults is a considerable number indeed; but there are, on the other hand, about 37 million adults who are literate, can read and write and so one would expect them to be more influential in Egyptian society. Judging from what many observers have noticed, that large number of literate Egyptians hasn’t had a positive impact on the progress of the essential rights and fundamental freedoms of the Copts – in fact, we have seen deterioration in the Coptic situation over the last decades as the rate of literacy kept rising.[vi] The inescapable truth is that, as it seems, most of the staunch anticopts are educated Muslim Egyptians. The illiterate fellahin and labourers in the various villages and towns of Egypt are consumed by their difficult lives, and having no leisure time for drawing from the sources of hate that are readily available to others, are generally nobler than their educated co-religionists.[vii] It is true that many literate Muslim Egyptians – usually those who have received some Western type of education – are liberal in mind and would genuinely like to see a new type of Egypt where all of its inhabitants, whether Muslim or Christian, are treated equally and with respect. However, the number of Egyptian liberals dwarfs in comparison with those who have received some type of education but are overwhelmingly influenced by medieval Islamic culture. These latter, many of them highly educated, are the main guardians and propagators of anticoptic rhetoric and practices in Egypt.

LITERACY, THEN, although not without benefits for Egypt in other areas, does not seem to have an influence on the Coptic situation in any significant positive way. The more Muslim Egyptians learn of the type they uncritically absorb from their traditional religious literature the more they become anticoptic. It is the type of culture, in fact, that matters and not simply the ability to write and read. We come to the conclusion that unless some sort of a cultural revolution occurs in Egypt the Copts will continue to be seen as “others”. Egypt will need not a simple increase in the rate of its adult literacy to above the current 66% level in order to progress along the path of human rights – and here I mean the human rights of all Egyptians and not only those of the Copts, which includes women’s and all those considered non-Muslim by the Sunni majority –[viii] but a real change in its culture and mentality that is able to accept the other as equal in dignity and rights. To be blunt, this will require Egypt to be less influenced by Islam’s political theory and more by the dictates of modernity. It may be that Egypt will require a man like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of Turkey (1923 – 1938) to achieve that – there is no indication, however, that that might happen in Egypt as it had in Turkey; and Copts would be better advised not to hang their hopes on it. Yes, it is inaccurate and very misleading, to assume that Egypt will be less anticoptic once her children are educated – what really matter is what type of education they received. Even with the best type of education, unless it achieves drastic cultural changes, the Coptic Question will endure; the Copts will continue to be oppressed and the quasidhimmitude[ix] system will persist. We must not fool ourselves and pin our hopes on fantasy.

[i] UN_UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) for the years 2005-2008. See:

[ii] These include Nasser (1952 – 1970), Sadat (1970 – 1981), Mubarak (1981 – 11 February 2011), and Tantawi (from 11 February 2011).

[iii] CIA World Factbook Demographic Statistics, Egypt. The figures are estimated for July 2011. The total population of Egypt is given at 82,079,636 with the children (0-14 years) constituting 31.8% of the total.  The adult population (15+ years) is 68.2% of the total or 55,978,311. Read more about it here:

[iv] Egypt’s population below poverty line (est. 2005) is 20% (CIA World Factbook).

[v] For a definition of anticoptism, see my article, ANTICOPTISM (معاداة الأقباط, المعاداة للأقباط), THE ANTISEMETISM OF EGYPT which you can get here:

[vi] Peter Mansfield, in his book Nasser’s Egypt (Penguin African Library; 1965), e.g., gives us the increasing size of the school population in Egypt: 324,ooo in 1913; 942,000 in 1933; 1,900,000 in 1951; 3.5 million in 1961; and in the year 1965 the number approached four million (p. 120).

[vii] It has always been known that the uneducated of Egypt are easily influenced by their religious leaders and can be moved into anticoptic activities easily by them. However, they do not usually take the initiative, and they just act as ignorant tools to Muslim leaders.

[viii] This will include religious groups such as the Shia (ithna ashriya), Ismailis, Bahai’s, Ahmadis, and also ethnic groups such as the Nubians of Egypt.

[ix] I use the term ‘qasi-dhimmittude’ to describe to describe a situation in which, although the system is not Islamic in its entirety, it combines features derived from booth Islam and the modern world.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2011 7:14 am

    I couldn’t agree more with you, especially the Attaturk part, this would be a wonderfull event with hope for the future and for egypt as a whole.Sadly the way things are now i see no prospect for this happening in the near future.

    Ps:A must read :

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink
      October 26, 2011 5:15 pm

      Thanks, Will. I have lost confidence that Arab countries posses the necessary precondions for real democracy. An Ataturk may be required first. But the prospect for one, as you say, is low.

      Very interesting article you have provided a link to. There are serious concerns about the way this administration handles the Middle East in general.


  2. October 26, 2011 3:48 pm

    Dear Dioscorus,
    I think Daniele Salvoldi’s blog might be to your liking:

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink
      October 26, 2011 5:03 pm

      Thanks, Alin, for alerting me to Salvoldi’s blog which is very interesting. Dioscorus

  3. mindthehat permalink
    November 12, 2011 6:13 am

    Excellent article. I just wonder whether the Copts could ever have a strong sense of identity without learning Coptic?

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink
      November 12, 2011 11:36 am

      Thanks. I do think that the language shift, that took place in Lower Egypt in the 12th and 13th centuries and in Upper Egypt much later, from Coptic to Arabic has been catastrophic to the Copts and to their identity. However, the adopted Arabic language has not made the Copts think they are Arab – the Copts, or the overwhelming majority of them anyway, do not feel any identity with the Arabs apart from that of common humanity. There must be more than language alone that keeps the Coptic identity still strong – religion, culture, history and even race. But I do agree absolutely with you that learning Coptic will strengthen our Coptic identity and put a stop to the increasing Arabisation and Islamisation that have been destructive to our nation. To do that is the responsibility of all Coptic nationalists.



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