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Copts and political action before the 1919 revolution

In our previous article, we attempted an overview the Copts’ role in the public and political spheres before the 25 January Revolution. Many friends reminded me that I did not touch upon what happened before 1952. For this article, I had decided on discussing the role of the Copts from 1952 through January 2011, but …

Farid Zahran
Farid Zahran

In our previous article, we attempted an overview the Copts’ role in the public and political spheres before the 25 January Revolution. Many friends reminded me that I did not touch upon what happened before 1952. For this article, I had decided on discussing the role of the Copts from 1952 through January 2011, but I considered my friends’ point of view and was convinced to delve further back and spend time detailing the role of the Copts in the project, or more appropriately, projects, of modernisation before July 1952.

I do not want to go farther back from 1952 by much, and it will suffice to take a quick look at what happened before the 1919 revolution and then discuss in more detail the period from 1919 through 1952.

Before the 1919 revolution, and in particular during the period extending from 1881 through the 1919 revolution, the Copts appeared on the scene two times in a framework that can be described as one of sectarian strife; the first time was during an incident that the British colonialists took as a pretext for intervention. It is said that it was an attack against a Maltese Christian by a cart driver. The second time was in the sectarian tensions that Egypt experienced in 1908. This escalated to the point that Al-Manar magazine published the Gospel of Barnabas, which some Islamic sects claimed was the true Gospel as it heralds the coming of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad. Al-Sharq Wa El-Gharb, an evangelical Christian journal, responded by publishing “Surah Al-Turanin”, which alleges that Shi’a deleted this Surah from the Holy Qu’ran,  which was now available to Muslims, both Shi’a and Sunnis alike.

Sources available on the Alexandria incident between the cart driver and Maltese emphasise that the incident was a trivial one, or perhaps even fabricated in order to justify the colonial invasion of the country under the pretext of protecting foreign and religious minorities. For this reason not many details exist regarding the incident.

However, it was observed that following the end of the Orabi Revolt, the national movement that was revived by Mostafa Kamel and his party, the Nationalist Party, did not avoid engagement with the Coptic issue and the necessity of integrating Copts into the fabric of the political and public spheres. The sectarian strife that we mentioned in earlier lines, which was considered by some historians and intellectuals to be the largest and most important example of strife in Egypt’s modern history, exploded between 1908-1918. These are the years considered to have witnessed growth for the Nationalist Party and Kamal’s activities, and under his leadership the party reached an important peak and prestigious standing.

This was especially true after the Dinshaway incident of 1906, as Mostafa Kamel succeeded in exposing the proceedings and implications of the incident and mobilising the national movement around it. However, it is important to note that great sectarian tension broke out among this climate of national mobilisation.

We can say that the national movement, under the leadership of Kamel and the Nationalist Party at that time, was moving under the umbrella of the Ottoman and British state. Mostafa Kamel called for candor at the Islamic University, and the nature of the Nationalist Party rhetoric under Kamal was Islamist to a large extent. Thus it was not logical that this discourse would be attractive to Copts, and we cannot agree with the view of some that everything was “just fine” and “perfect”, or that national unity had been formed and that Copts were on the forefront of the political landscape: it was merely that Wissa Wassef and Marcos Hanna were in the executive committee of the Nationalist Party.

Many years following, Hassan Al-Banna appointed a Coptic citizen to the  Guidance Bureau, but this does not represent evidence of Copts’ presence in the Muslim Brotherhood or that that Brotherhood was interested in Coptic representation or expression, because Brotherhood rhetoric was, simply put, Islamist rhetoric and unattractive to Copts.

We also must not forget that sectarian tension began with an article by Sheikh Abdel Aziz Gawish, which was published in Major General Newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Nationalist Party, entitled “Islam is strange in its country”. This is the same sentence used by the Brotherhood, from that time until now.

On the other hand, we must remember that the source of the greater tension at that time resulted in a Coptic general conference, pushing some Islamist currents to also hold an Islamist conference before the Coptic one had finished its work. Despite the fact that some interpretations claim the results of both conferences to be positive, we hold that these results were positive only because they did not lead the country into civil war. The results ran along the path of sectarian strife, however, and did not serve any other purpose.

Further, while the Nationalist Party and its newspaper and leadership formed a party which, directly or indirectly, ignited, or at least fuelled, the flames of tensions, Lord Cromer opened the door for Copts to take on public positions, sign up for missionary work, and open schools that accepted more Copts than Muslims. He tried throughout this time to position Muslims against Copts, and it appeared to the Coptic elite that colonialism embraced them, or perhaps more accurately, as though the conditions created or built by colonialism embraced them. On the other hand, the national movement treated Copts as enemies, and because of this, the situation almost became dire.

Now, and after the passing of all that time, no one talks about the tensions of 1908-1918, although there do exist some published writings on the Internet that do not ignore this period. These sources argue that the strife simply did not occur and that the Coptic and Islamist conferences produced positive results! This opacity and blindness to what is considered by some to be very dark times in history is part of an Egyptian tradition that does not see the shame in the incident itself but rather in the people knowing that something negative occurred. Therefore, if a woman is harassed, for example, we can avoid the shame by not informing the authorities or refusing to tell people about it.

Similarly, sectarian tension is shameful if we bring the topic up, and therefore instead of discussing it, understanding the reasons behind it, and combating it by not allowing the causes to occur again, we try to cover up the strife and insist that things are “just fine”, and that colonialism, Israel, the Crusades, communism, imperialism, or maybe even the country, is the reason for the strife, and that all Egyptians are one people cut of one fabric… to some extent this rhetoric is not correct, or rather, inaccurate.

Here I am talking about the tensions of 1908, which peaked at the First Coptic Conference; it was prepared and financed by Akhnoukh Fanos and held in Assiut and supported and approved by the Pope himself. I speak about this strife and this conference after the issue, unfortunately, reached a point where Copts became Egyptians only a few months previously. In the diaspora, a conference entitled The Second Coptic Conference was held and matters also reached a point where Copts who were known not to be extremists or intolerant, recently announced more than once that the resolutions of the First Coptic Conference were all good except for the claim that breaks would take place on Sunday. In this way they ignored the context in which the conference was held, one of tension and discord.

The facts that cannot be questioned are that the Egyptian national movement under the leadership of Mostafa Kamel and the Nationalist Party looked as though it were an Islamist movement and not a nationalist one. This reason was sufficient to distance Copts from it, and on the other hand, policies put in place by Lord Cromer since his appointment as High Commissioner were designed, directly or indirectly, to give Copts great opportunities that they had not previously enjoyed. Because of this, moments of strife broke out in 1908 and continued more or less through 1918, feeding a number of events and attitudes including the article by Abdel Aziz Giwash, the assassination of Wardani by Boutros Ghali Pasha, the convening of the Coptic Conference, the deployment of Surah Al-Turanin and the Gospel of Barnabas… up through the later incidents of “racism” and intolerance that were unprecedented before 1919. How did that happen? We will learn about this in the next article, God-willing.


Farid Zahran is a publisher and writer. He is the co-founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

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