THE DEMANDS OF COPTIC NATIONALISTS مطالب القوميين الأقباط
MANY ARE desperate to find what the Coptic nationalists want. They also would like to know what Coptic nationalism is and who the Coptic nationalists are. They will have to wait until the full meaning of Coptic nationalism is revealed. But we have not kept them waiting on the subject of the purpose of Coptic nationalism, even though it was not detailed. There is much to be found about our demands in what we have already declared:
The Coptic nationalists work for a civilian, secular democratic Egypt for all Egyptians regardless of religion, sex, colour or nationality. If that is proven impossible, we shall fight for secession and the establishment of an independent Coptic State. When and how the second option may become a first option is frankly in the hands of our co-patriots, the Muslims of Egypt. A special burden falls on the shoulders of the moderate Muslims – they must discard their lethargy, apathy and join us in an anti-Islamist front. There can be no more dangerous enemy to Egypt’s democracy and progress other than the Islamists – their harm touches moderate Muslims and Copts alike. Let us be honest and frank about this: not only Egypt’s democracy and progress are being endangered by the advent of the Islamists, but also its national and territorial unity. Let Egyptians learn the lesson of Sudan!
It is perhaps about time to expand on this subject. We shall not talk about our second option – the partition of Egypt, for this is not our first and preferred option. It will, however, become our first and only option if Muslim Egyptians failed to deliver on what we expect from them – namely full equality and freedom within a one united Egypt. Here we take it that there is still time for Muslim Egyptians to realise the dangerous path along which they – or many of them – are driving Egypt; that they realise that the policies of the Islamists, the negligence of the military (which holds true power in Egypt) and the apathy of moderate Muslims, may all lead Egypt towards a fate worse than that of Sudan’s. We, therefore, address them here so that they may avoid us that fate.
There has been a lot of talk about a conspiracy or a plot to partition Egypt. Muslim Egyptians blame, as usual, outsiders for many of their faults – on this matter they blamed the U.S. and Israel, what they call “the Zionist entity”. Their suspicious are directed against a British-American Jew, the historian Bernard Lewis – he was credited with drawing a partition map that involved the entire North Africa and the Middle East, and which was endorsed somehow, “in a closed session”, by the U.S. Congress in 1983. That map, we are told, contemplated four future states in place of current Egypt: Sunni, Coptic, Bedouin and Nubian states. Let us suppose there is such a plot to partition Egypt by its “enemies”; let us assume that they are working hard to achieve it – the question then arises: What have Egyptian Arabs (for such conspiracy theory came from them primarily), who form the majority, done to prevent the partition of Egypt and to foil such an attempt by its “enemies”? Countries do not get divided for no reason. Many countries have different national groups within borders – that, however, does not necessarily lead to partition. Only in countries that fail to address the injustices that characterise the relationship between majority and minority does partition occur. No “enemy” can partition any country unless three conditions prevail: first, such injustices exist whereby the majority oppresses the minority and denies it its rights; second, the majority, or its leaders, fails to address such injustices, and rather than stopping them, it denies their existence; third, the minority reaches a degree of desperation by which it loses hope completely in unity with the majority and opts for secession. There is no doubt that the Copts are oppressed, suppressed and persecuted. If any Egyptian Muslim denies that let him or her join the real separatists – those Islamists in truth who deny the centuries-long plight of the Copts, and through that denial, and the insistence on it, furnish the pre-conditions for a Sudanese scenario by which Egypt is eventually divided into two, Muslim and Coptic states. But for those who admit that the Copts are, and have been, suffering several injustices in Egypt – those who have some understanding of the Coptic Question – we ask the following question: Do you have any clear policy on the Coptic Question? Nearly two hundred Egyptians have declared their wish to compete for Egypt’s presidency – it seems that none of them has any policy on the Coptic Question. What failure!
BUT LET US expand here on what Coptic nationalists want. We had been under a long Islamist rule in the period prior to the inauguration of modern Egypt by the French campaign in 1798. All Islamic dynasties that ruled Egypt during that period were oppressive, and assaulted our individual, whether civil or political, and collective rights relentlessly, even though sometimes the pressure would ease only for a short respite. Certain collective rights, however, were retained, and the Copts were given the right to separate legal courts in relation to their personal law. This is what has come to be called the Millet system. This system allowed the Copts some national autonomy in this sense; however, it was extremely limited, and had been gradually eroded. After the Crimean War and the issuing of the Hamayouni Decree by the Ottoman Empire in 1856, Coptic conditions started to improve in Egypt. Gradually, under Said Pasha (1854-1863) and Khedive Ismail (1863-1879) the Copts breathed some freedom and dignity; the former ruler reluctantly allowing them to do so, while the latter with a large degree of tolerance. Coptic individual and collective rights witnessed their peak in the years that followed the British occupation of Egypt in 1881. When Nasser came to power in 1952, and with his Arab nationalistic policies, he started eroding on our cultural rights, while our civil and political rights suffered along those of other Egyptians. With the advent of Sadat (1970-1981) and his successor Mubarak (1981-2011), a mismatch secular-Islamist system of government was introduced, and eroded even further on Coptic rights as it denied them the benefit of either of the two systems. Now, following the ouster of Mubarak, we are facing even tighter secular-Islamist system, which is veered more towards the Islamic side, and which threatens the Copts with more restrictions on their individual and collective rights.
So, what do Coptic nationalists want? We demand the following:
- A secular, civilian, democratic Egypt that is just for all. This means Egypt with no Islamists or military in power. It also means getting Islam out of politics in Egypt. Let that be clear.
- Guaranteeing of the individual (both civil and political) rights of the Copts within Egypt.
- Guaranteeing of the Coptic collective rights of the Copts. This means a large degree of non-territorial autonomy with a separately elected Coptic cultural council that possesses exclusive legislative power over religion,[i] education[ii] and cultural[iii] matters, and the right to represent the interests of the Copts to the state.
The last demand may send shock waves through Egypt’s political elite and state. Some may misread it, and think that we call for isolationism – nothing is far from that. Non-territorial autonomy is the solution to Egypt’s Coptic Question. It has been tried in Europe’s modern multi-national states and it has largely been a success in preventing civil conflict and wars. The Coptic nationalists are integrationists but not assimilationists – they want to engage with other Egyptians on a patriotic level while protecting and defending their cultural identity. Failure to understand and recognise this by Muslim Egyptians will be a great mistake. If any Egyptian presidential hopeful would like to contemplate a policy on the Coptic Question, let him or her not ignore what we have just said.
TO SUM UP, Coptic nationalists want a secular, civilian democracy in Egypt which will guarantee not only the individual rights of the Copts, those rights that are due to them because of their legal status as citizens within such a state, but also the collective rights of the Copts, which are due to them in their capacity as a national group with unique cultural identity under threat. Yes, Coptic nationalists demand, inter alia, a Coptic non-territorial autonomy (self-government). This or secession. This summarises our principled position, and gives in short our three demands, which are in the last resort demands that can only assist Egypt’s progress along the path of democracy and preseve its territorial unity.
The Coptic nationalists are not naïve. They know that these demands are not easy to get, and that their adversaries will put every obstacle on their path in order that the status-quo of oppression continues. But the Coptic nationalists are in there for the long haul – and they know they are in a win-win situation. The long journey has started by articulating our case; and in due time we shall get what we deserve, supported by all freedom-loving peoples, including many moderate and liberal Egyptian Muslims.
[i] Such matter shall include the personal-law of the Copts.
[ii] Such matter shall include Coptic schools, university, curricula, language, etc.
[iii] Such matter shall include libraries, theatres, museums, media, sport, etc.