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The Coptic Church and the January 25 Revolution

One of the powerful images that came to define the Egyptian protests of 2011 was that of Christians and Muslims praying together in Tahrir Square in Cairo. That image helped shape the understanding of what was being portrayed as a liberal and secular uprising, one that stood in dramatic contrast to the region’s traditional dichotomy of politics as a choice between the authoritarian regimes and the Islamists. The overriding aim of leaders in the Coptic Church of protecting their communities led to a modern variation of the historical millet system that provides them public status in exchange for their acquiescence to regime policies. This security guarantee, combined with wariness toward other potential political actors and the desire to protect their privileged position from communal challengers, has resulted in the church’s preference for the authoritarian status quo rather than the promotion of democracy.

Having experienced the brunt of Islamic radicalism and government acquiescence, the church had little doubt that the Mubarak regime, while not perfect, provided a stable environment for Copts to maintain their faith. Indeed, the patriarch publicly supported Mubarak until his resignation in February 2011. Fearing that the uprisings would be Islamist led and serve to undermine the rights of Copts, leaders of the three major Coptic sects in Egypt denounced the participation of their followers in the January 25 protests. Bishop Morcos, the spokesman of the Coptic Orthodox Church, said, “We don’t know the goal of these demonstrations, its details, or who stands behind them.” Similar attitudes were expressed by Andrea Zaki, head of the Evangelical Church deputy, and Bishop Antonious Aziz, the representative of the Coptic Catholic Church.18

Since the Copts are not a homogeneous group—as mentioned—many objected to such a relationship between the church and the regime. Many had concerns about the increasingly political role of the church and its impact on citizenship. They felt that they engaged with the state according to the guidance of the church and not as independent citizens.

With respect to the Egyptian revolution, the stance of Copts has been varied, with some participating in protests, others defending the authoritarian regime, and most remaining on the sidelines. In the month leading up to the events of January 25, the symbol of the crescent and the cross resurfaced in light of the tragic church bombing in Alexandria on December 31, 2010, which left about thirty dead and several hundred injured. Essentially, the period between this tragic incident and the onset of the protests saw the emergence of a widespread national debate concerning the rights of the Copts, the role of religion in the public sphere, and the need to tackle the issue of so-called extremism. The symbol of the crescent and the cross was seen on banners in the streets; it covered the pages of newspapers and was broadcast on national television. Copts’ actions during this time proved that the church leadership’s control over them became very tenuous. Copts’ participation in the protests challenged the notion that Pope She- nouda III was the sole legitimate representative of the Coptic citizenry’s political demands, and showed that the demonstrations took place independently of the church’s will.

In Tahrir Square, the protesters primarily sought to delegitimize the Mubarak regime’s alleged guardianship of national unity in Egypt in order to show that the population did not need the protection of the state to remain united. It was a tactical form of resistance aimed at delegitimizing the state and encouraging Egypt’s religious groups to join the protest movement. The banner proclaiming “Muslim, Christian, One Hand” was raised during the eighteen days of the uprising. By insisting that both Coptic identity and Muslim identity should contribute equally toward the construction of the Egyptian national identity, many Copts thus emphasized their adherence to the national cause.19

On the morning of Tuesday, February 15, 2011, after Mubarak’s resignation, Pope Shenouda III issued the following statement: “The Coptic Church salutes the honorable youth of Egypt, the youth of January 25, who led Egypt in a strong, white revolution and sacrificed for this cause precious blood, the blood of the nation’s martyrs, who have been glorified by the Egyptian leadership and armed forces as well as the entire population. We offer our condolences to their parents and members of their families. The Coptic Church also salutes the brave Egyptian army and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in its efforts for securing Egypt internally and externally.”20

There is little doubt that any hierarchal institution, of which the church is an example, by its nature does not believe in revolutions. A hierarchal institution considers obedience one of its main principles (which is to say, it is difficult to blame the church for opposing the revolution).21 However, the January 25 protests illustrated the failure of the divide-and-rule strategy adopted by the Mubarak regime. Coptic churches were not threatened at any time throughout the eighteen days of the uprisings despite the absence of state security forces to protect them.

Participation by Copts in the uprisings was testament to their sense of belonging and their ability to defy political isolation.

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