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Copts: A Consolidated “Minority” Perception

Christianity in Egypt2 dates from the time of Saint Mark the Evangelist. From that time, the whole of Egypt was Christian until Islamic rule began in the seventh century. Egyptian Christians were called Copts (Qibt or Aqbat), from the Greek Aigyptos. The transformation from Christianity to Islam and the Arabic language occurred steadily throughout the centuries. Now, to be a Copt is to be a native Egyptian Christian, in contrast to Egyptian Muslims and to non-Egyptian Christians.

The perception of what constitutes a “minority” is constructed through some important insights about networks of association and lines of division among different groups in society. Minorities tend to assert special needs and advocate for legal acknowledgment of their rights and special status in society. Minority claims may be acknowledged or violated as the existence of a minority becomes socially and institutionally embedded. To be considered a minority, a group must be an integral element in broader society while remaining sufficiently outside its sociopolitical core. To be a minority is to lack access to the kinds of power and status conferred on those who abide by the dominant norms in that society. The significance of minority status thus differs from society to society. It is dependent on which social characteristics come to be treated as critically distinctive, and on whether there are disadvantages accompanying this distinction.

In practical terms, the categories of “minority” and “majority” are meaningless. The more pertinent category is power—namely, how the majority and the state use their power vis-a-vis the minority population. The more pertinent question is whether a government represents the entire population or just one particular segment of society.3 A minority is a group that cannot be dominant in a society and in that society’s polity. A group can be deemed a minority when its values and worldviews are either excluded from or insufficiently reflected in the public sphere and in the constitution of societal norms. This kind of exclusion signifies marginalization and exclusion. Marginalization is a perception, among individuals or a group, of a lack of belonging to the predominant social structure and an inability to effect change within society.4 Because religion embodies a clear delineation of culture, a religious group may rely on religion to consolidate its minority status.

Accordingly, social identities are, to a certain extent, constructed and maintained through shifting social boundaries. The demarcation of these boundaries is negotiable. In a sense, the Christian identity of Copts does not, then, signify the exclusion of Copts from Egyptian society or its sense of “Egyptian-ness” but rather stresses their distinct identity from that of the majority.5 Indeed, the issue of minority rights in Egypt is by definition a political one, with the minority and its corollary, the majority, often implicit in political discourse. That is, in Egypt, the category of the minority tends to be represented in religious terms. Thus, the Christians are a “minority community” since religion is treated as the definitive component of culture.

Yet, in Egypt, the Copts are not defined a religious group, per se. The Egyptian state groups its subjects into the categories of a legally privileged majority and a legally protected minority; a distinction that identifies the former with the Egyptian nation and the latter as simply residing within that nation, though not fully a part of it. The most striking change in Egyptian political culture during the past fifty years has been the apparent increase in its commitment to Islam, due in large part to the success of Islamist groups in providing services (that is, relief from substandard living conditions) where governments have been slow to respond. The signs of growing Islamic identity are everywhere—in dress, in behavior, and in the country’s publications—and seem to have had an impact on the degree of piety among ordinary Egyptians.

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