Egypt: The Coptic Struggle after the 1952 Putsh

.: March 22, 2008

When Egypt is secular, the Copts have equal rights with Muslims; this leads to Egypt’s growth economically, culturally, and intellectually. As history shows, competent leaders who promote equality for all of Egypt’s citizens guide Egypt to flourish and to become a leader in the world.

Egypt suffers as a whole when the government does not promote human rights and instead bases its laws and actions on religious doctrine. Egypt was once the greatest civilization in the world. The country has faced a variety of challenges over time, but it is clear that since the 1952 putsh, it has become one of the poorest, most backward countries in the world economically, culturally, intellectually, and morally. To make any progress, Egypt must return to secularism and put an end to extremist fanatical religious violence that terrorizes the Copts of Egypt every day.


We will not examine the Egypt of thousands of years ago, but rather modern Egypt, starting with Muhammad Ali. Under Mohammad Ali, Egypt started a sort of secular system in the modern era, and as a result Egypt flourished politically and economically under his rule. Equality between people of different religions had become the hallmark of the administration. A great number of qualified non-Muslims, especially Copts, served in administrative posts. Muhammad Ali appointed Mu’allim Ghali, a Christian, as his financial adviser. The Copts and Western Christians were given better chances to develop their skills in business. Although they remained a minority, their position began to improve early in the nineteenth century under the stability and tolerance of Muhammad Ali’s administration and because of the fact that they were able to become involved in politics.

Muhammad Ali’s son Said Pasha was his successor. Egypt continued to flourish under his rule, as he continued his father’s secular way of government. Indeed, certain things improved; for example, in 1855, the Jizyah, a special tax on non-Muslims, was lifted and the Copts were no longer excluded from military service. In many areas, the Copts were placed on the same level as the Muslims. They served on Egypt’s appointed and elected representative body from the time the first consultative council was established in 1866, and they frequently reached high office. Said Pasha proceeded to revive the works in agriculture, irrigation and education begun by his father, Mohammed Ali. Culturally, Muslims and Copts had co-existed as equals, as a result of the social changes introduced by Muhammad Ali’s modernization.

Later, the British occupied Egypt. It was clear to the Copts that the British policy as an occupier of Egypt was to cut down the role of the Copts in order to gain the support of the Muslim majority. This policy was blatantly evident when they took away many important positions from the Copts. This reduction in Coptic representation in important positions gave rise to even stronger anti-British feeling among the Copts than would have otherwise been felt for an occupying power. The Copts jointly participated with the Muslims in their struggle to end foreign occupation under the slogan, “Egypt for the Egyptians”.

Both Muslims and Copts resisted the British, joining together under the leadership of Saad Zaghlul in the formation of the Wafd Party. The Wafd inspired national struggle against the British. On December 22, 1921, Saad and his colleagues were sentenced to exile in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) and the following day he was jailed. The Wafd issued a statement signed by Wasif Butros Ghali, Sinut Hanna, Mustafa Al-Nahas, Wisa Wasif and Makram ‘Ubaid protesting Saad’s detention. The British authorities then arrested Mustafa al-Nahas, Sinut Hanna, Makram ‘Ubaid, Fathullah Barakat and Atif Barakat and the decision was taken to exile Zaghlul and his colleagues to the Seychelles.

Some Coptic leaders were suspicious that the Wafd stood for, or accepted, too much ideological diversity. Marqus Simaika for instance feared that the injustice of the Muslim majority might be worse than that of the British rulers. Saad Zaghlul assured them that the 1919 revolution was neither religious in nature nor a call for pan-Islamism.

George Khyyat asked Saad Zaghlul when he joined the Wafd about the fate of the Copts after independence. Saad Zaghlul replied that every Egyptian would be given equal rights regardless of religious or other origins. This statement was an indication that the Wafd would be a secular party, and this encouraged the Copts to become members. Also, interest in the Pharaonic past became an intellectual passion of the 1920s. Sparked by excavations that began in the previous century, it grew further after the discovery of Tut Ankh Amun’s tomb in 1922. The Copts were among the first to show an interest in and identification with Egypt’s ancient heritage; and the Coptic press was an important medium for reporting information about the Pharaonic period. Wafdists and Liberal Constitutionalists were among those who were supportive of the Pharaonic movement, but neither were as committed to secularism.

In the subsequent period, Copts were well represented in the Senate, through 1952. They were better represented, as a proportion of the legislative body during the 1930s compared to the later period, although in terms of sheer numbers, due to expansion in the size of the legislature, there were more Coptic representatives in 1952 than at any earlier period.


After the revolution, Nasser came to power. What is well known about Nasser is that he was a socialist, but in fact his goal was clearly Islamization. In a speech commemorating the ninth anniversary of the revolution Nasser stated; “The Islamic State was the first socialist state…. In the days of the Prophet and at the present time the poor were and are protected from the rich. In the days of Omar (the second Caliph), Land was nationalized and distributed among the agricultural workers…Islam is thus a socialist religion.” Once in power, President Nasser proceeded to redistribute the wealth, with the stated aim of reducing foreign economic power in Egypt, although the impacts also fell strongly on certain sectors of the Egyptian citizenry. Prior to the 1952 revolution, the Copts held a large portion of the nation’s wealth. The regime confiscated thousands of hectares of farmland, of which a substantial percentage was owned by Copts, including the Coptic Church. Although the government agreed to compensate the Church for the confiscated land, which has been the main source of church revenue, the settlement never happened. Moreover, the Ministry of Islamic Endowments (Awqaf) has since that time been taking over foundations set up to support the Churches and seen to it that the confiscated land was redistributed to Muslim farmers only, excluding the Copts. In 1961, nationalization laws transferred privately held industries to government control, delivering a fatal blow to the Copts, since Copts had owned a substantial number of factories, companies, and banks.

The Islamic Congress was established in 1954, the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs was established in 1961, and the Directorate General for the propagation of Islam, which is an organization in the Ministry of Islamic Endowments (Awqaf), was established at a similar time and subsequently constructed, at the expense of Egyptians of all religions, three thousand mosques. A special station to broadcast readings from the Qur’an and religious lessons over the radio was established by the regime in 1964. Dozens of Islamic religious magazines, books and the state-owned daily newspapers published material of which a substantial part was hostile and humiliating to the Christian faith. Such writings, in many cases, even resulted in the killing of Christians. Coptic schools as well as those supported and operated by Christians were brought under the control of Islamic authorities by a law of 1958. Under this law Islamic culture was introduced into their studies. The result is that in many elementary schools Christian children are forcibly taught the Qur’an in accordance with the Islamic State’s national policy despite the fact that in many cases passages of the Qur’an are in contradiction with their beliefs. Military and police academies restrict admission of Christians to 1% of the accepted applicants. Elementary teachers’ colleges accept only 5% Christians. The departments of gynecology and obstetrics in all Egyptian colleges of medicine are completely closed to Christians. Copts constituted 40% of the teaching staff at the faculty of medicine before 1952; they are now less than 4%. Religious courts were abolished and all cases were turned over to civil courts. When these new courts started functioning early in 1956, the Copts discovered that the Muslim religious laws were directly incorporated into the civil laws.

Nasser’s successor, Anwar El-Sadat, unfortunately, proved to be an incompetent and inept ruler. His ties to the radical Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, caused him to move Egypt further away from secularism with actions such as the amendment to the second article of the Egyptian Constitution with the clause “and the principles of the Islamic shari’a (law) are a major source of legislation,” to the earlier statement: “Islam is the official religion of the state,” and the placement of the Coptic Pope under house arrest. Sadat set free the outlawed extremist Muslim Brotherhood Society and granted them facilities to propagate their teachings among young Muslims. By the beginning of the 1970’s these types of radical extremist muslim groups had infiltrated university unions, transforming the unions into fanatic religious societies. They had also infiltrated the police, the army, government institutions and the public media, holding influential and key positions in each of these areas. The Egyptian state under Sadat was only non-responsive to the minority’s demands for protection, justice, and equality, but actually heightened the trend toward Christian persecution. In July 1977, a general congress under the guidance of the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar University was held at Cairo. The key point on the congress’s agenda was immediate application of the Islamic “Shari-a”, (law) (Al-Ahram newspaper, July 16, 1977). The first law of Shari-a is the law of Apostacy which states that, “Any person who leaves Islam and does not repent within 30 days is to be hanged.” Around 1977, the Ministry of Education decided to include Islamic culture in the curricula of Cairo University, to be taught to all students, Muslims and Christians alike. The Cairo Court of Appeals put the Islamic personal affairs laws into effect by ruling that a Christian is permitted to marry four women at one time.

Sadat’s regime enforced the restrictions on building Churches, which date back to the Ottoman Empire. Mubarak’s regime continues this repressive practice, which treats Christian Church repair and construction as criminal activities.

After Sadat’s assassination in 1980 his vice president, Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, assumed the presidency. Once in power Mubarak made few policy changes and was widely viewed to be ineffectual at solving Egypt’s economic and social problems. Coptic Christians in Egypt comprise an estimated 20% of the population of 70 million, which is 15 million, but the Egyptian government subjects Coptic Christians to severe persecution and bad treatment. Christians in Egypt have to deal with two enemies: the Egyptian government, which engages in criminal activities against them, and cares less about their plight, and Islamic fundamentalists who are waging war against the Copts. Mubarak’s Human Rights record is terrible. According to the American Coptic Association, “President Mubarak has not made basic changes to eliminate the persecution and discrimination against the Copts.” He has not appointed a Christian to the judicial system, police or army, and no one who has murdered Christians or taken their property has been brought to justice. Under Mubarak, Islamic fundamentalism thrived, bringing violence against the Copts, often with the encouragement of the police and security forces, and sometimes with their active participation. On a daily basis, Christians in Egypt are subjected to persecution, harassment, threats, attacks, invasion of privacy, discrimination, confiscation of property, and murder. Christians in Egypt are considered outcasts. Muslims look down upon Christians and think that they must get rid of them or force them to accept the religion of Islam. Politics and religion are two sides to the same Islamic coin. In addition to hurting the economy by suppressing the energy and contributions of the Copts, the fundamentalists have harmed Egypt’s largest industry, tourism.


As history has shown, when Egypt was a secular country with equal rights for all its citizens, it thrived politically, intellectually, culturally, and economically. When Egypt’s citizens were persecuted based on their religion, Egypt suffered as a whole. Egypt today is a country that is rich in its potential but poor in its leaders and a prisoner to the fundamentalists’ ideals of an Islamic state. This has hampered its social and economic well being because its government supported thugs who are spilling the lifeblood of the country.

Unless a strong, secular government is put into place, the Egyptian society and economy will continue to crumble due to the marginalization and continuing exodus of the Copts, and in despair, the people may agree to an Islamic theocracy. This would be a terrible tragedy because Egypt has such promise to become again an intellectual and cultural center as it was for thousands of years.

We demand an end to the oppression of the direct descendents of the Pharaohs. We hope and pray that Egypt changes into a society that treats every member with dignity and equality. Only then will we see our beloved Egypt flourish and once again become a world leader politically, intellectually, culturally, economically, and morally.

Violence against Christians still continues but state police and Muslim mobs are increasingly becoming the perpetrators.


The Middle East Pact demand justice

1. The Egyptian Government should implement a policy of separation of Church and State by the abolition of the second article in the Egyptian constitution that states "Egypt is a Muslim Country and the Quran is the main source of legislation." Article 40 states that "All citizens are equal", however the second article supersedes the 40th.

2. The Copts are 15 million but are represented in only 1.5% of elected and appointed Government positions; we demand fair political representation of Christians in Egypt by designating 25% of the electoral districts for strictly Coptic candidates, similar to the current system wherein 50% of the districts are closed to any candidates except farmers and laborers.

3. The Copts demand 2 of the following 4 top leadership positions to be held by Copts: Vice President, Defense Minister, Interior Minister, and Prime Minister.

4. The Egyptian Government should promote equal representation by advocating for 25% representation in the Popular Council and in all Professionals Bars and Associations.

5. People who have committed crimes against the Copts, such as massacres against Copts, kidnappings, rapes, and forced conversion of Coptic girls (as young as 12 years old) must be brought to justice. There are reports of police protection given to the abductors.

6. Police officers who falsified reports after torturing Copts and converts to Christianity must be held accountable for their crimes. Mubarak’s 23-year reign has seen 30 massacres against the Copts, 100s of rapes and forced conversion to Islam, and no one has ever been convicted of any such crime.

7. The Egyptian Government should end its policy of discrimination in building and repairing churches – currently, applications for building and repair of churches MUST be approved by the National Security Police, and are rarely approved. This approval policy, along with the second article of the Egyptian Constitution, make the Copts not only strangers in the eye of Muslims, but also, second class citizens in their own home land.

8. The Egyptian Government should compel the media to stop propagating hate towards Christians and should abolish the discriminatory practices of the educational system, admitting all qualified candidates into Al-Azhar University, regardless of their religion.

9. Mubarak’s Government must stop the torture and imprisonment of Muslim converts and allow anyone with an immigration visa to leave Egypt safely.

10. The Egyptian Government must grant equal air time to the Copts on the government controlled TV and Radio stations so that they may broadcast their beliefs to their people. The 15 million Copts living in Egypt pay for TV and Radio with their taxes, and they should have time allocated for broadcasting.

Milad ISKANDER © Middle East Pact

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