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NATIONAL CULTURAL AUTONOMY FOR THE COPTS الحكم الذاتي الثقافي القومي للأقباط (OR NON-TERRITORIAL AUTONOMY الحكم الذاتي غير الإقليمي)

October 10, 2015

FreedomFreedom, painting by Sandy Tracey, US artist


In a previous article, Coptic Nationalism called for a national cultural autonomy (also called non-territorial autonomy) for the Copts in Egypt. In short, national cultural autonomy (NCA) is self-government in cultural issues by the cultural nation. But, what does NCA mean in more detail? Here, I will try to explain the idea.

The concept of CAN (or non-territorial autonomy [NTA]), was first introduced in 1899 by the Austrian politician and thinker, Karl Renner (1870 – 1950),[1] in his famous essay, Staat und Nation.[2] Renner was at the time a member of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Austria (SDAP)[3] and a citizen of Austro-Hungary[4] – one of the largest and major European powers of the time. Austro-Hungary was a multinational state that contained multiple ethnicities and cultures, including German, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Pole, Ukrainian, Slovene, Croat, Serb, Romanian, Italian, and Jews with the result that tensions and frictions between these diverse nationalities were frequent, as national minorities tried to assert themselves in the face of the German and Hungarian dominant majorities that often tried to assimilate the former against their wishes. Consequently, the stability, security, and territorial integrity of the country were put at danger; and, so, politicians of all sorts tried to find a solution to what they called the problem of the nationalities.

Renner produced the NTA (NCA) model in a trial to save the state of Austria-Hungary from these maladies and threats; and, at the same time, to satisfy the cultural needs of its various national minorities, including non-territorial minorities who were not concentrated in one geographical region but were dispersed across the state, and intermingled with other nationalities. Renner was a genuine democrat and believed that NCA would forestall the tyranny of dominant nationalities that were in the business of assimilating national minorities and wiping out their unique cultures, either in the name of protecting the nation-state, or in defence of majoritarianism[5]. For nations that form a majority in a geographical area, territorial autonomy (regional government) was a solution; but, that, in itself, created new problems, as those minorities within that region often became victims to the majority nation with a regional self-government. This solution was not practical for nationalities that, like the Copts in Egypt, did not have a majority in any region, and are widely dispersed throughout the state of Austro-Hungary. For these cultural nations, which cannot protect their rights through territorial autonomy, Renner came up with the idea of non-territorial autonomy. He envisaged that solution to be “constitutionally enshrined collective rights for national minorities in order to protect them from any subversion of their status by a majority decision.”[6]

NCA thus must be enshrined in constitutions that majorities as minorities respect. It is not a charity by anyone; and it neither must depend on the whims of governments. Any just constitution must recognize and protect national minorities, the beneficial of such self-government arrangement. The definition of national minority has largely been accepted to be that of the United Nations: “A group numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a State, in a non-dominant position, whose members – being nationals of the State – possess ethnic, religious or linguistic characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population and show, if only implicitly, a sense of solidarity, directed towards preserving their culture, traditions, religion or language.”[1] By this definition, the Copts, undoubtedly, constitute a national minority. Collective rights (or group rights) are different from individual rights but are complementary to them: while individual rights (such as his right for equality before the law, political and other civil rights) belong to each person individually, collective rights (such as the right for protection and promotion of culture) belong to a group of people as a whole rather than one person. Ethnic, lingual and religious minorities are such group of people; and another group is indigenous peoples. It is important to stress that minority rights are now an integral part of international human rights law; that minority rights, in this law, encompass both individual rights of the individual rights of that minority and its collective rights. While NCA deals almost exclusively with the collective rights of a minority, the individual civil and political rights of the individual persons of the minority are dealt mainly by the overarching state. The state has the duty, under international law, to protect and promote the collective rights of its cultural minorities; and, at the same time, it has same duty to protect and protect the civil and political rights of all its citizens – including those of the minorities.

NCA deals with self-government on cultural issues: but what is culture? The definition of culture with sociologists vary; however, when applied to politics, the word is used to describe that which makes a special group unique, and differentiate it from the majority. This usually includes a minority’s ethnicity, religion, language, history, literature, values, folklore, etc. It is this that NCA seeks to protect and promote; and not to leave it casualty to onslaught by a majority.

Minorities in the NCA model have two non-competing identities: the first is their citizenship, which they share with all other citizens of the state, and which entitles them to equality in respect of political and civil rights; the second is their nationality, which encompasses their free identification with their minority. Kirsten Porter in her excellent article, The Realisation of National Minority Rights, explains this further:

“The model requires all citizens to declare their nationality, as distinct from their citizenship, when they reach voting age. These members then form part of a single national association, which has legal personality, sovereignty and competency to administer all national-cultural affairs. For example, national associations would be responsible for the establishment, maintenance and development of educational and cultural institutions, for the preservation of their linguistic, cultural and religious heritage and for ensuring members are not disadvantaged in their contact with the judiciary, administration or government of the state.”[2]

NCA then requires the creation of “a single national association” with “a legal personality, sovereignty and competence to administer all national-cultural affairs.” The national association is based on democratic principles; and is built from the ground up with local bodies elected, and, by coming together, these appoint national-level representation. For this to work, there must be a “national register” that forms the basis for the election of the national collective: it comes first; and is initiated and set up by representatives of the given minority. Later, the national register is maintained by the national collective body (national association). Affiliation to the cultural minority, to its collective body, and registration with the national register, is free: minority individuals voluntarily declare their nationality when they reach the voting age; they thus freely affiliate themselves to that national register. The national collective is accountable to the individuals of the minority through elections.

The funding of such national collective comes from multiple sources: the state and municipal authorities provide the bulk of it; however, the national collective will have the right to levy taxes (cultural taxes) on those who have signed up to the national register; additionally, the national collective can receive money from internal and external individuals and institutions who are interested in protecting and promoting the minority’s culture.

The NCA, since it is in essence self-government by the minority in cultural matters; and this includes:

  1. The revival, development, use, preservation and protection of the national language and literature.
  2. Development and maintenance of education and institutions by which the national minority will have control over schooling (including higher education), education (including curriculum), and research, in the relevant language or any other language they wish to use.
  3. Development and maintenance of cultural institutions and preservation of the cultural and religious heritage of the minority; which includes the minority’s language, literature, arts, libraries, museums, history, archaeology, etc.
  4. Development and maintenance of charities.

Further, the national collective of the minority acts as interlocutor and intermediary between the minority and the state. The scope of the NCA then further includes:

  1. Ensuring that the members of the nationality are not disadvantaged in their contact with the judiciary, administration or the government of the state.
  2. Representation of the nationality in discussions with the state on issues of equality, non-discrimination and proper representation.

The NCA does prescribe, in the words of Kirsten Porter, “a two-tier system of government, which grants non-territorial autonomy to national groups (including national minorities) while maintaining the administrative unity of the multi-nation state. In this way, it maintains the current boundaries of the nation-state whilst redefining the internal divisions between national groups, granting these groups a form of political recognition which will better protect their rights.”[3] In such model, “the competencies of the nation and the state are distinct, eliminating competition between them.”[4] It is important to remember this: the adoption of a NCA for a minority does not undermine the over-arching state but saves its territorial integrity through external interventions, calls for secession, and civil war.

Our call for a NCA for the Copts in Egypt is resisted by a few: of course many Muslims, though not all, will oppose since they have been accustomed in their relationship with the Copts to a position of supremacy and dominance within Egypt, and would always want us to be inferior and ruled by the majority without having to enjoy in full our individual and collective rights. But there are Copts, and some foreign sympathisers with the Copts, who do not lend it their support as they see it as a dangerous proposal that could harm the Copts more than benefit them, considering the animosity that the Copts find from many Muslims. For these objectors, the solution to the Coptic Problem is through struggling with Muslims for a secular, modern state, where the Copts enjoy equal civil and political rights – collective rights do not interest them. They object to the creation of any intermediate interlocutor between the individual and the state. This position, born of fear more than of from boldness and hope, conceals itself in the robes of modernity. Coptic Nationalism, question it on many points:

  1. This principle, which is called “the central-atomist principle”, is followed in liberal democracies, such as the United States, that have reached their democratic potential early on, and do not suffer with acute or chronic conflicts between its different cultural nationalities.
  2. It is important to remember that Egypt is not a democracy let alone a liberal one; that the oppression and persecution of the Coptic minority by Egypt’s Muslim majority is long-standing; that this low position is not acceptable anymore; that this oppression threatens Egypt’s stability, security and territorial integrity.
  3. It must be recognised that Egypt is not a nation-state but a multi-national state despite all the efforts to conceal this fact. It has three nationalities: Arab, Copts and Nuba – these have different cultures based either on their different ethnicities, or languages, or religions, or history, or culture, etc.
  4. The central-atomist principle is ideal if the minority or minorities in the state are only interested in their individuals’ civil and political rights, and do not possess, or do not consider it important to protect and promote their culture. The Copts are not just a Christian minority – they are not Arab Christians: they are Coptic Christians, a nation with a unique ethnicity, language, history, religion, and culture.
  5. In states where an original minority wants to retain its unique culture, represented in language, religion, etc., the arrangement of a territorial autonomy, if the minority forms a majority in one region, and a non-territorial autonomy (national cultural autonomy), if the minority is widely dispersed within the state without one region being theirs, appears to be the only solution if both the minority and the majority are keen about keeping the territorial integrity of the state. This is the case with the Copts of Egypt who cannot visualise a partition but do not give up their collective rights.
  6. Many modern, liberal democratic countries have adopted the NCA arrangement for their national minorities, including in Central and Eastern Europe.

The NCA model is similar to some extent to the arrangement that the Ottoman Empire, under pressure by the European Powers, introduced to its Christian minorities, mainly Greeks and Armenians, in 1856, by the Hamayouni Decree, and called each structure “Majlis Milli”, that is “National Assembly”[5], by which it granted them some degree of autonomy in their communal affairs. This arrangement was introduced into Egypt by Khedive Ismail; and so the Coptic Majlis Milli was established in 1874. With lengthy interruptions, and wasting of its energy and time in foolish fights with the Coptic Church, it was little more than a skeleton, though it continues until this day. The Coptic Majlis Milli cannot be described as a NCA arrangement: it matches the NCA model neither in the latter’s constitutional nature, nor its democratic structure, nor its scope.

NCA is bound to be similarly a shadow of what it is intended to be in the absence of democracy, and when individual rights are denied. It is important, then, that the Copts should fight on two fronts: we must fight for equality, non-discrimination and protection of the individual rights of all citizens, including Coptic individuals, by the state; and on the national level, we must fight for the protection and promotion of our collective rights. A NCA for the Copts cannot be effective except in a secular, liberal, democratic Egypt. And this understanding, rather than making us insular, makes us at the centre of any general struggle with other Egyptians for true democracy.

The NCA will allow us to protect our culture and promote it; reach our potential as a cultural nation; provide the conditions for our culture to flourish; and make us contribute to the culture of the world. All this we can do without isolating ourselves from the general Egyptian society; without failing to contribute to Egypt’s politics; and without abandoning our zeal to serve the whole of Egypt and its entire people.

In short, the NCA is the best solution to the Coptic Question: it provides the Copts with what they want without threatening Egypt’s territorial integrity.

[1] This definition was made by Francesco Capotorti, the Special Rapporteur of the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, in 1977. See UN: Minority Rights: International Standards and Guidance for Implementation (New York and Geneva, 2010).

[2] Kirsten Porter, The Realisation of National Minority Rights in Macquaire Law Journal (2003) Vol 3, p. 62.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Milla means nation.

[1] Later, in his last years, he became President of Austria (1945 – 1950).

[2] He printed the article under the pseudonym, Synopticus. Reprinted as “State and Nation” in Ephraim Nimni (ed.), National Cultural Autonomy and Its Contemporary Critics, London: Routledge, 2005.

[3] Renner joined the Social Democratic Workers’ Party of Austria (SDAP) in 1896.

[4] The Austro-Hungarian Empire survived from 1967 to 1918, when it was ended by WWI.

[5] The majoritarian rule, that the majority has the right to do what it wants.

[6] The electronic newsletter of UNU-CRIS, 3-6-2005.

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