WAS THE PARTICIPATION OF THE COPTS IN THE 1919 REVOLUTION A MATTER OF ASTUTENESS OR STUPIDITY?
The Copts joined the Muslims in the 1919 Revolution against British Rule
Major C. S. Jarvis, or Claude Scudamore Jarvis, (1879 – 1953), was a British Arabist and colonial governor in Egypt (he was appointed governor of the Western desert and then Sinai, retiring in 1936).
Jarvis was an imperialist and proud of it. He hated the popular Egyptian Wafd Part, which agitated since 1919 for the complete independence of Egypt. He always believed that Egypt was not ready for independence; that there was no immediate sign of Egypt being able to govern herself successfully; and that was because the Egyptian mob [what we can call now the masses] had proven that it was unreasonable, uncontrollable and unpredictable – it had a propensity for attacking Christians and foreigners once they are in possession of any power. “When the mob gets the upper hand in Egypt, history proves there is only one result – looting and attacks on Christians and foreigners.” In his book, Desert and Delta, which he published in 1938, he gives several examples, starting by the events in 1882, which ended up by the British occupying Egypt. He says:
“In the year 1882, owing to a mutiny in the Egyptian Army, a state of complete anarchy ensued in the Nile Valley involving among other things the murder of Europeans and looting of their houses and shops. The rising was organized primarily to call attention to the inequitable treatment of Egyptian officers in the Army and the preference shown to Turks; but in a few days the object of the rebellion was lost sight of completely and degenerated into a massacre of Christians and the extermination of all foreigners.”
Jarvis gives two examples from Alexandria in the period 1919 – 1923: “On one occasion a mob, which with the best possible intentions had started out to show their disapproval of the British occupation in the orderly manner, for some unaccountable reason became imbued with anti-Hellenic views and three Greeks were killed and innumerable Greek shops looted. Another mob at a later date with the same laudable intentions in their minds seized an unfortunate Italian, poured petrol over him and burned him to death.”
But the most interesting example, if only because of its relevance to the Copts, is the following:
“[T]he episode … happened in Assiut in 1919 when the whole of Egypt blazed up into open revolt against the British. Assiut is a large town on the Nile. Half-way between Cairo and Luxor, and is the dwelling-place of most of the rich Copts in Egypt. Here they have wonderful palaces on the banks of the Nile and live in the lap of luxury. The Copt, the Egyptian Christian, had for generations experienced a not particularly happy time in Moslem Egypt, but with the strong British control during Cromer’s days he came into his own. He has, as a rule, more brain and business acumen than his Mohammedan brother, and with the bar of religion removed the Copt rose to eminence officially and vast wealth commercially. When all Egypt rose against the British, the Copt, who is essentially an opportunist for his hard life since the Arab invasion has taught him the necessity of always backing the winning horse, considered that he also must strike a blow for freedom if only for the sake of effect, so certain of the young Copts stirred up the Moslem fellaheen of Assiut against the British.
The resulting mob, some thousands strong, advanced upon the town and found a company of British infantry behind hastily erected sandbags; this looked decidedly unhealthy and most unprofitable, and the mob scratched its head for a moment. The British were Christians and unbelievers and it was primarily against the unbelievers that they had assembled together; if certain of these unbelievers were unsporting enough to arm themselves with machine guns and rifles and get behind sandbags there were other unbelievers who had not taken these precautions and who were far better endowed with this world’s goods. And so as one man the mob moved on to attack the palaces of the rich Copts and the long-suffering British infantry had to go forth and protect the lives and property of the people who had actually instigated the revolt. These incidents happened only nineteen years ago and there is not the slightest reason why they should not happen again.”
The unreasonableness and unpredictability of Egyptian mob is known. My purpose here is to connect it to another quality of the Egyptian mob (by which I mean the Egyptian Muslim masses, to be clear), which the Copts have discovered and repeatedly experienced – its untrustworthiness and empty promises. Whenever the Copts and Muslims united in one endeavour, the Copts having been duped by the sweet tongue of the Muslims and their promises, the Copts found themselves betrayed shortly after by the same men they had trusted. This is not the place to write a long article on this particular matter, but the reader may be astonished to find that it goes back to the eighth century at least. There is evidence that at the times of the Abbasid revolution, the Copts believed the Abbasid propaganda that the new rule would be better than that of the Umayyad, an awful rule; so, they joined in the fighting with some Arab tribes against the last Umayyad Caliph, Muhammad ibn Marwan (744 – 750). Once the Abbasids won, the Copts found that the Abbasids were not better than the Umayyads: the persecution resumed, and worse than before.
There are more examples, but I am more concerned about what happened in the 1919 Revolution. Britain occupied Egypt in 1882. In 1919 Egyptian nationalists started agitating for independence and complete British withdrawal from Egypt. The shouts rose: “Complete independence or fast death.” Egypt as a whole benefited from the British occupation, and the wise administration of Lord Cromer (1883 – 1907) in particular; but the Copts had a special reason to celebrate the British Rule, since, for the first time, Muslim religious discrimination of the Copts ended, and oppression stopped; thus allowing the Copts – a very industrious and resilient nation by the verdict of others – to flourish and build their community in peace and prosperity. As Jarvis says: “The Copt, the Egyptian Christian, had for generations experienced a not particularly happy time in Moslem Egypt, but with the strong British control during Cromer’s days he came into his own. He has, as a rule, more brain and business acumen than his Mohammedan brother, and with the bar of religion removed the Copt rose to eminence officially and vast wealth commercially.”
So, why did the Copts support the 1919 Revolution? Were the Copts astute and opportunistic in supporting the 1919 Revolution, or stupid and gullible? I would bypass the claim of patriotism, which no one can doubt. The Copts are a patriotic nation; but patriotism is no good reason to end a good situation in favour of an insecure one. Jarvis seems to answer the question in his own way: “the Copt, […] is essentially an opportunist for his hard life since the Arab invasion has taught him the necessity of always backing the winning horse.” This may be the case: some may call it astuteness: the Copts could not take an antagonistic position to their Muslim compatriots, since the British occupation was not expected to last forever. Taking a different position may bring hell over their heads, and allow the Muslims (who were happy to be occupied by the Ottoman Empire) to attack them, accusing them of taking an unpatriotic position. Others describe the Coptic position in 1919 as a stupid position, characterised by gullibility and naivety, as the Copts foolishly trusted in the promises provided by Muslims in exchange for support, and helped in the ending of the British rule that had protected them? As we know, despite the undoubtedly great Muslim leaders at the time, such as Saad Zaghlul (1858 – 1927), the greatest of all Muslim leaders, and the fact that the Copts fared well for some time after the 1919 Revolution, the Coptic situation deteriorated once the British rule became thinner with time, particularly after the 1936 Treaty, and eventually ended after the 1952 Revolution.
The British rule was very good to the Copts, despite the problems created for them by Eldon Gorst (1907 – 1911), Consul General under the British Liberal government (1905 – 1915). There is no doubt that it was better than any Muslim rule that came before or after it. So, why did the Copts support the Muslims in their endeavour to throw the British rule? The accurate answer to this question, in my opinion, is not as important as the debate that such a question would engender. It is important to discuss this topic freely and without hindrance or fear of what the Muslims would think.
Whether astute or stupid, I think the Copts should have taken the following position during the 1919 Revolution:
- Emphasise the good that the British Rule has done to Egypt and the Copts.
- Insist on guarantees by the Muslims, constitutional and legislative, including minimum Coptic representation in the parliament and cultural autonomy for the Copts, after the British leave.
- Demand external guarantees for the rights and liberties of the Copts, including acceptance of the offer of protection of the minorities in Egypt by the British.
The participation of the Copts in the 1919 Revolution should have been approached by the Copts in a courageous, strong and clever way. The Copts should have negotiated a deal with the Muslims to guarantee the promises which the Muslims gave them.
But the Copts are not very good at such things, fear of the Muslim reaction overpowers them; and in the process, they forget about the power in their hands that prompts Muslim in the first instance to court their support. The Copts must understand their power. They must learn how to negotiate a deal that is based on concrete guarantees rather than on empty promises. The events surrounding the latest revolutions, 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2014, prove that they have not yet understood their power or learned to strike a deal.
 Major C. S. Jarvis, Desert and Delta. An account of modern Egypt (London, John Murray, 1938); p. 3.
 Ibid, p. 1.
 Ibid; p. 4.
 Ibid; pp. 4-5.
 As I said, I do not intend to write a long article here; so, if the reader wants to find more about this, he could consult the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church.