Book Review: Dealing with religious diversity in Egypt

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Wednesday 17 Jul 2013

Samir Morcos and Sameh Fawzy study the challenges facing Egypt's Coptic Christians

Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Idarat Al-Ta'adudeya Al-Aineya … Al-Akbat Fi Misr Namuzagan (Managing Religious Diversity ... Copts in Egypt) by Samir Morcos and Sameh Fawzy, Alexandria: Marased Series – Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2013. 44pp.

The most important achievement of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in these difficult times is its publication of the Marased series. The series includes peer-reviewed articles that track important social phenomena, especially in the Arab and Islamic world. It is managed by the library's Future Studies Unit.

The latest issue attempts to tackle and analyse how religious diversity is being managed in Egypt, using the case of Coptic Christians as an example, written by two specialist authors, Samir Morcos and Sameh Fawzy.

In their introduction to the paper, the authors say their intention is to understand how religious diversity is managed via public policies. They track the history of the challenges facing Copts and what solutions were devised and worked at other times, noting their successes and failures.

The study covers four angles. The first includes a brief introduction to the history of the Copts' problems. Although Copts have participated actively in the modern state project started by Mohamed Ali Pasha (ruled 1805-1848), they were only freed from paying the tax on non-Muslims (gezya) in 1854. They were only allowed to serve in the army in 1855, and participated in the very first parliamentary experiment in modern history when they entered the Representatives Council in 1866.

Through tracing the history of the challenges facing Copts during the early 20th century and during the revolutions of 1919 and 1952, the study concludes that the problems facing Christians during the Mubarak era included, most importantly, their exclusion from even running for parliament under the umbrella of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) due to their limited chances of success. For example, in the 2010 election, only two of the NDP's 444 nominees were Christians. In addition, the government refused take a firm stand against growing sectarian animosity against Copts. The state allowed religious incitement against them, and left space for religious debate to turn violent and aggressive.

The second section of the study discusses the lack of rational management of diversity. It looks at the times when a significant change happened to sectarian incidences, where violence and attack on Copts and churches took a sharp upward turn, such as the Khanka church incident in 1972. During the 1980s and 1990s sectarian incidents broke out throughout the country.

The last decade of the Mubarak era saw a complete refusal to engage or address sectarian problems, and it was approached purely as a security issue, not as a political or cultural challenge. This meant no proper legal and political framework was set up to manage it.

In parallel, the media began playing a greater role than the legal system in deepening intolerance in society.

The third section presents alternative visions of the challenges facing Copts in Egypt. For example, on the matter of building or restoring churches, the authors say it is critical to overcome the current bureaucratic laws that require presidential approval before licenses are given. On the matter of representation, the paper proposes a national dialogue that seeks to integrate society on the basis of citizenship, putting forward strategies to achieve this practically, including a code of ethics that all national forces are to abide by.

The study suggests a "national list" system in elections to overcome the challenges of small or marginalised groups, such as women and laborers.

Finally the study warns against the continuation of sectarian strife in the delicate times of revolution, when it becomes a high-risk topic for society. The paper proposes producing new law codes and monitoring religious strife and discrimination in public spaces.

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