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Copts under Mubarak

According to the parameters of state-society dynamics, the Egyptian state under Hosni Mubarak may be characterized as weak at the political level but fierce at the security level. Society suffered divisions that impaired the ability of its citizens to confront the state, a tension that boiled over during the mass revolts of January 25, 2011, which were directed not only against the state, but also against the social structure itself, against the marginalization and exclusion endured for so long and by so many.

The government’s handling of violence against Copts15 during Mubarak’s reign also shows its failure to protect its citizens. Several attacks on Copts and their churches reinforced the view that so-called religious violence was a major threat to the prospect of Egyptian democracy. The Mubarak regime had always maintained that it was the only force capable of ensuring “religious peace” because it suppressed religious extremism (the claim that Mubarak successfully bottled up Islamists is sometimes repeated in postrevolutionary Egypt). In actuality, however, and in a policy of “divide and rule” designed by Egypt’s security forces to divert attention from its corrupt pol itic al and economic management, the Mubarak regime attempted both to satisfy and keep the Islamists in check by op?erating under a formula in which the state continued to rule from the top, while the radical Islamists determined and supervised social norms from below (that is, from within Egyptian society). In a regime whose priority was its own survival, Copts have therefore become symbolic victims.

Mubarak’s ability to maintain such complicated relations with Egypt’s religious factions is linked to two issues: the desires of the “Islamic street” movement and corruption.16 The Islamic street movement is growing stronger and demanding greater Islamization, and the regime has met these demands in order to increase its own legitimacy, power, and domination. The Muslim Brotherhood, which influences and leads the movement in Egypt, has a rather complex relationship with the regime. Aware of the possibility, which has manifested itself periodically, of repression as well as their own relative weakness, the Islamists avoided challenging the regime in any significant way. At the same time, the regime tried to buy off the Islamists and preoccupy them by giving them a large measure of power over the establishment of Egypt’s social and cultural norms and by tolerating, if not encouraging, the oppression of Copts. Second, corruption had become one of the pillars of the regime, with a powerful oligarchy firmly in place, and was in large part responsible for its inability to confront Egypt’s escalating societal, demographic, and development problems in a satisfactory manner.

Concern that other actors would be less tolerant of the Copts’ religious community was therefore not misplaced, and this, with perhaps also an eye also toward protecting the privileged position of the church, led the Coptic Orthodox pope, Shenouda III, to support the Mubarak regime. Indeed, Shenouda III was granted significant autonomy over the Coptic community on the condition that this power base was not to be used to challenge the state. However, the willingness and ability of the state to guarantee protection of the Coptic community were increasingly challenged in the latter years of Mubarak’s presidency. Recurring issues have included the lack of political representation and participation and sporadic outbursts of violence that are often related to societal inequalities.17

Concerning the place of Copts between the state and society, the contention that political problems were created by the previous regime and used to guarantee church support against the potential ascendancy of Islamists was supported. This created a societal crisis between Muslims and Christians and transformed the church into the sole representative of Copts at the political level, which deepened religious polarization.

The relationship between Copts and the regime was one in which the state treated and regarded Copts as a closed and homogeneous bloc that was represented by the Coptic Church both politically and spiritually. Factors such as the charismatic character of Pope Shenouda III and worries over the Islamic alternative further confused the relationship despite the refusal of numerous Coptic secular activists and movements to be manipulated. Also, the patriarchal system of governance inherent in the traditional churches endorses church involvement in political and societal matters, especially through the church figurehead, the patriarch himself.

Accordingly, Christians were forcefully confronted with the importance of defining the relationship between communal loyalty and national identity, not only in the realm of ideas but also in their daily lives. In light of the challenge to the authoritarian model, which erupted in 2011, the church hierarchy’s support for the regime reflects this assumption that the authoritarian status quo was preferable to democratic uncertainties. However, the unexpected and powerful emergence of popular movements on January 25 invited Copts to privilege civic solidarity over primordial ties.

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