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November 22, 2011

The Voice of America (VOA) invites Arab activists every while and then to write something about what is called Arab Spring, and under its title. On 19 November it published on its website an excellent article by Nervaa Mahoud under the title: VIEWPOINT: Egypt’s Copts – Yearning for Tolerance of a Bygone Era. Nervana, who also tweets under @Nervana_1 , tells us, in her Twitter account biography, that she is “Doctor, Political blogger and analyst. Liberal and open-minded. Passionate about world affairs and politics but my opinion can be provocative”.[i] I have known Nervana on Twitter, and I am confident that she represents one of the finest personalities of all those who tweet about the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). It was, therefore, not surprising that I found her viewpoint this time round again interesting and refreshing. However, while there is no denial about her noble intentions, I had to disagree with her on a central point.

 Nervana Mahmoud, human rights activist

The article, which had evidently some editorial input into it that might have altered Nervana’s emphasis, portrayed the Copts as yearning for tolerance of a bygone era – the era of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1952 – 1970). While there is no dispute that the current political situation is the worst in Egypt’s and the Copts’ modern histories, it will be misleading to represent Nasser’s era as a golden age of equality for the Copts to which the Copts look back with nostalgia. The Copts have significant concerns about the Nasserite policies – policies that, on balance, had been destructive on the Coptic people, individually and collectively. But rather than repeating myself, I will simply copy Nervana Mahmoud’s article [which you can find at: ][ii] accompanied by the two comments I posted on the subject, and in which I expressed a counterpoint. I do not intend to enlarge on these two comments: the reader will hopefully find in them – short as they are – a synopsis of what Coptic nationalists think of Nasser’s policies and their negative impact on the Copts. Suffice it to say here that the Golden Age for the Copts – if there is anything like that – , in so far as their legal status in the State is concerned, is to be found not in Nasser’s era but in Egypt’s first and last democracy in its long history seven thousand years – the Liberal Era (1922 – 1952). It is worth mentioning that this unique period was inaugurated by the 1919 Popular Revolution and ended by the 23 July Military Coup which was led by Nasser (with Sadat as a member of the coup junta). The 25 January Popular Revolution – at least not yet – has not succeeded in reviving it yet. The hopes are, however, high that the current Revolution 2.0 will be able to usher in a second period of democracy by sending the military back to their barracks, and establishing a civilian rule that is committed to democracy and secularism.   .

 VIEWPOINT: Egypt’s Copts – Yearning for Tolerance of a Bygone Era

Posted on October 19, 2011 by Nervana Mahmoud

It probably was a thrilling moment for every Egyptian Copt. On a sunny June day, in 1968, Pope Kyrillos received the remains of the holy Apostle Mark​, the founder of the Coptic Church, which had been absent from Egypt for over eleven centuries.

The then President of Egypt​, Gamal Abdel Nasser​, had accompanied the Coptic Pope, the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and delegates from the world’s various Churches to celebrate the opening of the new cathedral in Cairo, beneath which the saint’s remains were to be interred.

In a somber, yet joyful ceremony bells were ringing, and crowds were praying passionately remembering the founder of their Church in Alexandria, who was tortured and killed by pagans in 86 A.D., only for his body to be stolen in 828 A.D. by Roman sailors, and transferred to Venice.

Since the Arab conquest, a triangular relationship had evolved in Egypt comprising three players – the state, the non-Muslim minorities and the Muslim majority.

Copts had to rely on tolerant leaders that would protect them from the overzealous extremism of some Muslims. Episodes of violence always erupted when intolerant Caliphs ruled Egypt.

When Equality Ruled

The end of 19th century was a turning point when the Muhammad Ali Dynasty​ embarked on a series of domestic reforms. In 1855, they abolished the Jizya tax (extra tax imposed on non-Muslims) – a huge step toward equality between all Egyptians. A modern, tolerant era had started and continued to progress even after the 1952 coup, and during the reign of Abdel Nasser.

Events of 1968 speak volumes of Abdel Nasser’s character as a person and leader. Born in Asyut in southern Egypt, a region with a significant Coptic population, Abdel Nasser must have had encounters with many Copts. Unlike the Egyptian Jewish community – with its members mostly educated and endowed with reasonable wealth and good relationship with the king and the British, many Copts were peasants, even illiterate, the kind of people that appealed to a socialist like Abdel Nasser.

In addition, Abdel Nasser’s secular stance indirectly benefited the Copts; religious identity took on a secondary role in Egypt during his rule. True, most Egyptians were pious, but their religious zeal was significantly subdued. Abdel Nasser’s rejection of the Islamists vision and ideology had put him on a collision course with the Muslim Brotherhood​ group. Particularly after a failed assassination attempt in 1954 many of their cadres ended up serving long prison sentences. That was enough to keep the Islamists pre-occupied; Copts probably dropped from their priorities list.

Pope Kyrillos’ personality probably helped; He was easy going and non-confrontational – the right person to handle a secular dictator like Abdel Nasser. There was clearly a positive chemistry between them.

Fading Harmony

Sadly, in 1968 Egyptian social cohesion was in its twilight. By 1971, the dynamics had changed. The death of both Abdel Nasser and Kyrillos ushered in two new players, President Anwar Sadat and Pope Shenouda.

The stiff, acrimonious relationship between Sadat and Shenouda signaled a new era between the Copts and the state. In addition, Sadat’s recalibration of the regime away from socialism led to the reemergence of Islamism in the country’s political scene.

The triangular relationship was broken; Copts lost both the support of the state and tolerance of their fellow Egyptians. The seeds of sectarianism had a favorable environment to regrow, and a new, ugly chapter in the Muslim-Coptic relationship was about to start.

My comment under Coptic Nationalism (dated 20 November 2011)

Thanks for another good article.

The relationship between Nasser and the Copts was complex. The positive contribution Nasser did for the Copts was his control of the Islamists, mainly Muslim Brotherhood. This happened as a result of his own power struggle between him and the Muslim Brotherhood. This gave the Copts some respite from the continuing onslaught of the Islamists.

But Nasser’s negative aspects when it comes to the Copts are many and more significant:
1. He ended Egypt’s first and only liberal era (1922-1952). During that democratic period, which was ushered by the 1919 Revolution, the Copts flourished, even though towards its ends the rise of Islamism dented their hopes and limited their participation.
2. Nasser’s socialist policies, contrary to what many think, did not help the Copts but destroyed much of their collective economic power. The nationalisation of big businesses and the redistribution of large lands hit the Copts severely. The Copts worked hard and honestly to reach that state of wealth; and even though the majority of the Copts remained poor, those wealthy Coptic families worked through internal charity and relationship with those in power to help and protect their less fortunate brethren. This has always been the case with the Coptic nation – the archons have always worked to ameliorate the condition of their poor.
3. The Arabist policies of Nasser hit hard at Coptic identity and helped to undermine Egyptianity in general. Unlike the Syrian Christians, the Copts never regarded themselves as Arab. Egyptianity was the only general identity which could tie them up to their Muslim co-patriots. Arab nationalism was undoubtedly much better than Muslim nationalism as far the Copts were concerned but it held no appeal to the Copts unless they could be induced to forget about their long history and distinct identity. Nasser commenced a campaign of brain washing in Arabisation for which he used all his propaganda outlets, including media and schools.
4. Nasser got Egypt into unnecessary wars with the West and Israel. This had the impact of distancing Egypt from the democratic and liberal political culture of the West and held Egypt hostage to a never-ending status of war, which delayed any talk about democracy and human rights in Egypt and stunted Egypt’s economic revival. This forth factor had a general negative impact on all Egypt, and the Copts were affected negatively by it like all Egyptians were.

Although Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, in his various books about Sadat, wanted to portray the rising religious tension between Copts and Muslims in Egypt during Sadat’s period (1970-1981) as a product in reaction to both Sadat’s and Pope Shenouda’s (sat on the Marcian Throne in 1971) characters, the truth is that Sadat’s era, as much as Mubarak’s and currently Tantawi’s, was characterised by attacks (physical, legislative or cultural) on the Copts by the State and the Islamist forces in Egypt. Pope Shenouda had to confront the Islamisation of Egyptian politics and marginalisation of the Copts in their own land. His resistance which resulted in his virtual imprisonment for several years was all a reaction, both necessary and legitimate, to these attacks.

No, the Copts do not wish to go back to Nasser’s years. However hateful to them the current affairs in Egypt are, it is not Nasser’s age which they root for (even though it was much better than the present by miles) but Egypt’s first and only liberal and democratic period (1922-1952). But they don’t even mind going back in time to the post-1854 years: an Ismail Pasha (1863-1879), for example, would be much, much better. It is a tell-tale of Egypt’s current status of human rights that the Copts miss the past rather than hope for the future. They may soon become permanent unbelievers in Egypt ever becoming democratic or liberal again. This will reshape their choices and actions for the future. But does anyone in Egypt seem to listen, apart from the few good that remain?


Nervana Mahmoud’s articles, as always, are driven by the noblest of feelings and thoughts. This is the type of moderate Muslim character that the Copts used to encounter in Egypt in the period 1922-1952: liberal, democrat and just. I applaud her for writing this article.

And Nervana Mahmoud kindly replied to my comment as follows:

Thank you so much for your valuable comment. just few thoughts.

1- I did not choose the title. My original one was Nasr and the Copts. I was trying to trace the roots of sectarianism. started with Zaydan piece, then Nasr and was planning to continue !
2- I agree with you about Nasr policy and how harmful it was. However, one can argue that It was not directly aimed at the Copts – though it affected them- but the entire population. But I also think that June 1969 was a special moment in Copts history
3- what is ironical in my view that even a ruthless Dictator like Nasr was better than the current Arab spring , when minorities live their worst night mare. Maspero is a stark reminder .

Again, I am truly grateful for your feedback and always value your opinion.

To which, I wrote a second comment:

Thanks. Agree with you that Nasser didn’t target the Copts directly (by which I understand you meant particularly). His policies were socialist and were not religious, but in the event it hit the Copts disproportionately. I would refer the readers to Saad Eddin Ibrahim, et al, The Copts of Egypt (London: Minority Rights Group International, 1996), which shows how bad the socialist policies of Nasser hit the Copts.

But Nasser’s regime, though worse than the liberal period, was much better than that of his successors, Sadat, Mubarak and Tantawi in the way Copts were treated. It is remarkable how Egypt got worse for the Copts with time.

And Nervan Mahmoud replied:

Thanks. I shall definitely read your reference and I agree.

[i] I copy the biography as it is.

[ii] The VOA expresses this on its website: The viewpoint expressed here is the author’s own and is not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you disagree with the author of this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. Also, you may e-mail with a short proposal for a Counterpoint. Our policy is to run Counterpoint essays as often as possible. Should our editors accept your proposal, they will be in touch with you on how you can submit your full essay. Once published, a link to your alternative perspective will also be added to the original post.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. permalink
    March 20, 2012 9:46 pm

    I am not really wonderful with English but I come up this very leisurely to interpret.

  2. Mina permalink
    January 30, 2013 9:55 pm

    Excellent entry…definitely important to present both of these equally valid and important views on Nasser’s presidency (I mean…dictatorship) and the Copts.

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      February 28, 2013 4:17 pm

      Thank you, Mina, very much. I appreciate your comments, and think highly of them.



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