Understanding sectarianism in Egypt

Tarek Osman , Tuesday 9 Apr 2013

Collective Egyptian identity has been severely weakened over the last 60 years in favour of religious sectarianism, leaving society less diverse and culturally poorer

There is a widespread myth that Egyptian Muslims and Christians are alike and that “Egyptian society is formed from a single fibre.” The idea betrays a failure to understand how differently Egyptian Christians and Muslims see themselves, and their society.

Egyptian Christianity is marked by assertiveness, victimisation and the supreme role the Church has played in its followers’ lives. Assertiveness reflects the decisive part played by the Alexandrian Church in shaping Christian theology. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Church’s fathers fought off the Arian and Nestorian ideologies that were held to be heretical, and that largely determined the thinking that came to dominate Christianity.

Suffering and victimisation came at the hands of the Romans and of some Islamic rulers. It was no coincidence that monasticism – blending seclusion with a sense of victimhood – was born in Egypt.

In the centuries when Alexandria was a centre of Christian learning and Egypt the hinterland of the Christian faith, the Church in effect became the country’s ruling institution. In the centuries after Islam’s conquest, as most Egyptians converted to Islam, the Church still played a dominant role in Christians’ lives, as a theological guide and a haven from a society that had become conspicuously and unremittingly Islamic.

Egyptian Muslims have almost the opposite experience. Islam came to Egypt as the religion of its new rulers: Egypt rapidly became the most important province of the burgeoning Islamic empire and Cairo became the capital of the Fatimid caliphate and the base of three powerful Islamic states.

Islam faced no theological confrontations in Egypt (though the Fatimids were Shia, Egypt was always Sunni). In effect, Egyptian Muslims, at least since the ninth century, have been the mainstream in an Islamic country. So Christians’ self-perception – and their view of Egyptian society – has always been very different from that of Muslims.

The second factor behind the ascent in sectarianism is that the notion of Egyptianism as a collective identity has been severely weakened over the past six decades. The modern state was created in the early 19th century, when exposure to Europe triggered a social movement aimed at modernising education, the emergence of a constitutional monarchy, exponential increases in immigration, and a swelling of the middle class.

The most popular political party in the early 20th century, the Wafd, adopted a strictly secular political narrative. Egyptian resistance to British occupation was a national, not a religious, endeavour. Christians played prominent roles in government, art and the economy, and the era witnessed an effervescent cultural atmosphere.

The whole experiment came to an abrupt end. Arab nationalism, espoused by Egypt’s legendary leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, steered the country away from Egyptianism and immersed it in Arab socio-politics. The Nasserite variant of Arab nationalism was meticulously secular. Nasser was sensitive to the sensibilities of the Christians. But by placing Egypt at the heart of Arab politics, and culture, by subtly weakening the old heritage of Egyptianism, and by abandoning the country’s individualistic identity and Mediterranean cultural outlook (a key characteristic of Egypt’s liberal age), the Egyptian first republic turned society towards Islam’s hinterland (the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant). Gradually and subtly, Islamism gained ground in the country’s socio-political life.

The same period saw a notable withdrawal of Christians. Nasser’s socialist policies triggered waves of emigration to North America and Europe, led by wealthy Egyptians, including many once-prominent Christians.

From the 1970s, political and militant Islamism began to spread, resulting in a conservative social code and, at times, violence against Christians. Since the Coptic Pope Shenouda III was consecrated in 1971, the Egyptian Church has once more become an active political player with special privileges and wide influence. The politicisation of the Church was a new development in modern Egyptian history after many decades in which the Church had shunned the vagaries of politics. Slowly but steadily, religious identities gained ground while Egyptianism fell back.

The ascent of political Islam in the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 uprising exacerbated the problem. Although President Morsi has been more proactive than President Mubarak in engaging Egyptian Christians in politics, there is a widespread trepidation amongst very wide segments of Egyptian Christians concerning personal freedoms in an increasingly Islamised society, implications on economic and financial interests given the immense changes taking place in the country’s political-economy, and that the increasing political tension (and the rise of Salafism) could usher in waves of assertive religiosity that could imperil Egyptian Christians. As a result, there is a conspicuous rise in Christian immigration from Egypt – at various social strata.

This is a significant peril to the Egyptian society. The more secluded and diluted the Egyptian Christian presence becomes, the poorer – politically, economically, and culturally – Egyptian society is. The brightest moment is modern Egyptian history was when the country managed to turn a lagging, lethargic agricultural state (from the 15th to the early 19th century) into a tolerant society and a destination for creative and ambitious immigrants from across the Mediterranean.

This was the foundation upon which the Egyptian liberal experiment (from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century) was founded, a period when Egypt was truly a regional political and cultural powerhouse.

Increasing sectarianism will slowly eat Egyptianism, denying the society the diversity and richness that have made it unique, beautiful, and rich.

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