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March 17, 2016

Sociologists, philosophers and politicians, of times old and new, have tired themselves writing about the typology of nationalism. One finds different types of nationalism cited: hegemony, particularistic, marginal, of minorities;[1] oppression, irredentism, precaution, and prestige;[2] separation, reform and unification;[3] and many other jumbled classifications that ignore the larger picture and include, as first order, classes such as ethnic, civic, religious, expansionist, liberal, romantic, cultural, post-colonial, liberation, left-wing, national conservatism, anarchic, diaspora, and pan-nationalism. These are jumbled attempts in the sense that they mix the different orders of nationalism, often giving a confused picture.

What make matters worse are definitions that arbitrarily exclude some types of nationalism. Look at the definition by Ernest Gellner: “Nationalism is the belief that the political and the national units should be congruent.”[4] Michael Hechter is similar: “Nationalism is collective action designed to render the boundaries of the nation congruent with those of its governance unit.”[5] These two definitions, with all due respect to the brilliance of their authors, determine that nationalism is exclusively political (that is, it seeks to create a sovereign state for the nation), thereby excluding altogether cultural nationalism (which seeks to secure some form of autonomous governance within a state shared with other nationalities). No doubt, the definition of nationalism which is based on the congruence of the political and national units does describe many nationalist movements in the 19th and 20th centuries that put sovereignty of the nation as their main objective. Admittedly, too, several nationalist movements started off as cultural movements and then, at a later stage, become political in the sense that they changed tack and sought to establish a nation-state. However, such definition ignores the reality of the existence of cultural nationalism that seeks as its main objective a degree of autonomy (self-rule) within a multinational state. All nationalisms are either political or cultural in their first order of classification – the primary objective of the former is creation of a sovereign state for the nation while that of the latter is an autonomous rule within a shared state. To define nationalism entirely on the basis of sovereignty, in which the nation is identified with the state, is as inaccurate as describing the animal kingdom, for instance, as vertebrate only. There is a fundamental problem of taxonomy in attendance here.

Anyway, my purpose in this short article is not to define nationalism in general or to discuss its various manifestations, but to define Coptic nationalism and assign it a type. To start with, Coptic nationalism, in the first order, is cultural and not political. This does not mean that Coptic nationalism does not engage in politics – it means that Coptic nationalism does not work for creating a national homeland, a sovereign state of its own. To explain it even more, Coptic nationalism does not work to partition Egypt between Muslims and Christians as the Muslims of India had created Pakistan for the Muslims by partitioning India in 1947. Cultural nationalism cannot arise in a state that is a real nation-state where the state is formed of one nation, and where all citizens share the same culture more or less and enjoy equal rights and privileges: it arises in states that are formed of several nations with unique cultures, where one culture, usually that of the majority, oppresses another culture, and the dominant nation pursues a policy of cultural hegemony. Even though these states are not nation-states (that is, comprised of one nation), they often try to force the impression that they are so, and keep denying that they are multi-national. Their propaganda is often couched in such rhetoric as ‘one national fabric’, ‘national unity’, etc. these states – or rather the dominant nation in them – vehemently deny the existence of any other nation in the state – they are basically multi-national states in a state of denial. It is not that their denial is based on a genuine belief in the oneness of all their national groups and the equal value of all their ‘citizens’ – no, their denial is almost always a necessary companion to their denial of any mistreatment they accord to their national minorities. Further, they know perfectly very well that the recognition of other groups within the state as unique cultural minorities will automatically provide these nations with protection as national minorities in international law.[6] Egypt is such a multinational-state in denial: it pretends to be a nation-state, and suppresses claims to the contrary, when it is in reality a state run by Arab Muslims while the Copts and Nuba, the other two nationalities within Egypt with unique history and culture, are side-lined and their cultures suppressed. Contrast this with states like Switzerland with its German, French, Italian and Romansh nations; and with the United Kingdom with its English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish nations: here, freedom and equality exist, and privileges are shared by all the various national components of the state. These are highly successful multi-state because no nation oppresses another nation: in the United Kingdom the English nation represent 85% of the population while the other three nationalities form 15% of the population; and yet all citizens of the state are treated with equal value and possess equal individual rights, while the collective rights of the three national minorities, the Scottish, Welsh and Irish, are respected, and powers are devolved to their national legislatives and executives. Consequently, no violent conflict arises, and no aggressive nationalism is met. Even when, in the case of Scotland, one minority nation seeks secession, it is all done democratically through referenda, and the result is accepted by the secessionists as much as by the unionists.

Coptic nationalism does not work for a Coptic homeland how much such proposition is attractive. It is not that this objective is impossible. Readers of history will always recognise that partition is always possible when the time is opportune and the circumstances are ripe. The Copts do not put secession as part of their agenda, in my opinion, because of two reasons. First, the Copts hate violence and the shedding of other people’s blood; and, despite all, they have genuine affection, affinity and consideration for Egypt’s Muslim Fellahin (peasants), who are largely descendants of Copts who converted to Islam, particularly in the late 13th and 14th centuries. The Copts are a peaceful people; their culture does not glorify violence and war despite their undisputed courage ; they know that partition can come only through a bloody civil war; and they would genuinely ‘hate to engage in slaughtering Muslims to establish their own state. Second, for the Copts, all land of Egypt is sacred land – their Holy Land. The Copts long history, starting from the beginnings of Ancient Egypt and including their Christian phase, is strongly and irrevocably tied to every part of Egypt, its Nile, lakes, deserts and mountains – they cannot, for example, take Sinai as their homeland and move out of the rest of Egypt. It would be the death of their national soul.

Coptic nationalism is better described not as much by what it doesn’t work for as by what it works for – and what it works for is national autonomy for the Copts within the multi-national state of Egypt. The next question to consider is: how does Coptic nationalism see this national autonomy? Autonomy by a certain national minority within a multi-national state is generally expressed in two forms: the first is territorial autonomy where the nation exercises self-government in a certain region where it enjoys numerical majority; and the second is non-territorial autonomy (or cultural autonomy) when the nation is widely spread throughout the state and a regional self-rule is difficult to realise: in this case, the nation’s best option is to have full autonomy over its cultural affairs. By such device, not only the individual rights of the members of a certain cultural nation are recognised but their collective rights as a cultural nation. In both forms of national autonomy, the arrangement is protected in law by inclusion in the constitution of the state.

With territorial autonomy, wide powers are given to the regional government which is run by the national minority. The closest example is the Southern Sudanese Autonomous Region in 1972 – 1983 and then 2005 – 2011. The first regional self-rule in the South of Sudan was established by the Addis Ababa Accord in 1972 which ended the First Sudanese Civil War (1955 – 1972). The region included the three provinces of the South: Equatoria, Bahr al-Ghazal, and Upper Nile; and had its capital in Juba. It was run exclusively by the Southern Sudanese who were largely distinct from the Northern Sudanese in race, religion and culture. It enjoyed a degree of autonomy in political, economic and social affairs; and had its own legislative (People’s Regional Assembly), executive (High Executive Council) and judiciary. Even though the Khartoum government which was run mainly by Arab Muslims was non-democratic, it left the South to run its affairs largely without intervention. However, in 1983, President Gaafar Nimeiry (1969 – 1985), following the discoveries of oil in the South, started to intervene in the politics and administration of the Southern Sudan Autonomous Region[7] and eventually, by a dictatorial decree, abolished it on 5 June. In the same year, on 8 September, Nimeiry introduced the Islamic laws of Sharia all over the country, including the South of Sudan. This led to the end of the Addis Ababa Accord, and to the ignition of the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983 – 2005). The warring sides continued a bitter war until eventually another peace agreement (The Comprehensive Peace Agreement [CPA])[8] was signed in January 2005; and resulted in the restoration of regional autonomy in the South Sudan, and Sharia was restricted to the North of Sudan. The CPA provided for a referendum on South Sudanese independence to be held on 9 January 2011; and it was hoped that the government of President Omar Bashir (1989 – ) would make unity attractive to the Southern Sudanese. The Southern Sudanese, faced with the tyrannical and Islamist government, voted overwhelmingly for separation; and, so, in 2011, the Republic of South Sudan was born, for the Southern Sudanese to have sovereignty and full power over their destiny. Eventually, regional autonomy in the South of Sudan failed because the North failed to make unity attractive to the Southern Sudanese. It must be recognised, however, that, in the years it functioned, the South of Sudan regional autonomy was successful to a large extent in maintaining peace and providing the Southern Sudanese with the opportunity to rule themselves.

Non-territorial autonomy is different from territorial autonomy: autonomy is not given to a region but to the non-territorial nation over its cultural affairs, such as education, schools, university, language, religion, sacred space, charities, history, culture, laws, heritage, monuments, libraries, museum, etc. Its government is democratic and elected from bottom up; and it is funded by the state, donations and taxes collected from the members of the nation, who voluntarily join the nation’s register list. As already stated, this device of self-rule is designed for nations, like the Copts, who are widely dispersed throughout the state and are not concentrated in one region, like the Southern Sudanese. Although its scope is limited in comparison to the powers enjoyed by territorial autonomies, it practises full control over the huge and extremely important sphere of the nation’s cultural life. Even though the nation does not have sovereignty over its own affairs in an independent state, or possess the extended powers that territorial autonomy system provides, it is, nevertheless, an effective tool for protecting the nation and preserving its culture – it is a survival tool against real existential threats through assimilation into the culture of the dominant nations and dissolution of the nation itself.

Non-territorial autonomy was first suggested in 1899 by the Austrian thinker Karl Renner (1870 – 1950)[9] as a tool to end the national conflicts in Austro-Hungary, and saving the Empire, which was multinational, from collapse through the hope that giving national minorities autonomy over their cultural affairs will satisfy them and stop them from seeking secession and forming their own states through carving land from the empire. Austro-Hungary was made up of several nationalities: German, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Pole, Ukrainian, Slovene, Croat, Serb, Romanian, Italian, and Jews; with the first two being the dominant nationalities while the rest oppressed. The idea was embraced by other states, such as the Soviet Union, Russia, Sweden, Estonia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, etc.; and has often proved successful in averting conflict and violence.

It must be emphasised that in both territorial and non-territorial autonomies, the nation does not isolate itself from other nations within the state or stop interacting and integrating with them, or withdraw from politics at the state level. The nation with a non-territorial autonomy will have to be still represented and active in the state’s legislative, executive and judicial bodies. Nations who go for non-territorial autonomy are active at two levels: at the state level to ensure the individual rights (civil rights in the American tradition, and political and civil rights in the French tradition) of the members of the nation are respected; and at the national autonomous level to protect the cultural collective rights of the nation as a whole. Simultaneously, members of the nation continue to work with other nations with whom they share the state and country on a patriotic level for the patrie (fatherland).  As Rainer Bauböck says: “Most advocates of such non-territorial solutions do not regard them as fully replacing territorially based politics, but envisage instead a dual form of self-government where individuals would be both citizens of territorial states and members of autonomous non-territorial communities.”[10]

This answers our question: what type of national autonomy does Coptic nationalism work for? Coptic nationalism objective is a non-territorial autonomy. It does not have any secession aspirations; and does not pursue its objectives through violence. It is moderate, patriotic, cooperative and integrative: while working to preserve its culture, Coptic nationalism seeks to engage with the other two nationalities of Egypt, the Arabs and Nuba, at the social and state level; and works for the betterment of the common fatherland (watan) and the goodness of all its peoples.

To conclude: Coptic nationalism is cultural, non-territorial nationalism. This is how it should be defined and typed.


FOR MORE ON THE SAME SUBJECT, go here and here.



[1] See Louis Wirth, Types of Nationalism. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 41, No. 6 (May, 1936), pp. 723-737.

[2] Max Sylvius Handman, The Sentiment of Nationalism.

[3] John Breuilly, Nationalism and the Syate, 2nd ed. (Manchester, 1993), pp. 9-10.

[4] Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Cornell University Press, 1983).

[5] Michael Hechter, Containing Nationalism (Oxford University Press, 2001).

[6] See: UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (1992).

[7] Such as dividing the three provinces into smaller units to undermine the influence of the Dinka tribe, the largest in South Sudan.

[8] Also called Naivasha Agreement.

[9] In his Staat und Nation.                                                       

[10] Rainer Bauböck, Multinational Federalism: territorial or Cultural autonomy. Willy Bradt Series of Working Papers in International Migration and Ethnic Relations (Malmö, 2001), p. 4.

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