The Copts of Egypt: The Challenges of Modernisation and Identity

By Sedra, Paul | Arab Studies Journal, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

The Copts of Egypt: The Challenges of Modernisation and Identity


Sedra, Paul, Arab Studies Journal


THE COPTS OF EGYPT: THE CHALLENGES OF MODERNISATION AND IDENTITY Vivian Ibrahim (xii + 258 pages, bibliography, index, illustrations) $96.00 (cloth) London: I.B. Tauris, 2011

Reviewed by Paul Sedra

Vivian Ibrahim's The Copts of Egypt emerges at a critically important moment in the modern political history of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. Since the uprising of 25 January 2011, the attention of not simply Western observers, but indeed, Middle Eastern analysts of Egyptian politics has focused to a large extent on the sectarian dynamics of the "postrevolutionary" Egyptian polity. Much of the analysis that has flowed from this attention has taken on a distinctly negative tenor, not least in light of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian parliament and the attacks of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on Coptic protesters, most notoriously at the Egyptian Radio and Television Building, or Maspero, in October 2011.

Those seeking lessons from the past about Egypt's current experience with sectarianism will find themselves hard-pressed to locate serious, sustained, scholarly analysis of the role of Copts and Christian-Muslim relations in Egyptian political life. Indeed, despite their status as the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, the Copts have attracted relatively little interest from historians of modern Egypt. There are several quite reasonable explanations (if not justifications) for this regrettable state of affairs, the most important of which is the aversion of the Coptic Orthodox Church to making the patriarchal archives accessible to researchers. The political sensitivities that surround questions of sectarianism in modern Egypt have prompted both the Church and the Egyptian state to discourage practically all research into modern Coptic-Muslim relations. Emblematic of the researcher's predicament is the fact that there exist no commonly accepted statistics regarding the number of Copts in Egypt.

Accordingly, Vivian Ibrahim's foray into this sparse field of inquiry is a welcome one. Ibrahim's book joins recently published texts by S. S. Hasan (Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt, Oxford University Press, 2003) and Peter E. Makari (Conflict and Cooperation: Christian-Muslim Relations in Contemporary Egypt, Syracuse University Press, 2007) to illuminate both the inter-communal and the intra-communal politics with which Copts have grappled in the modern period. Of these recently published texts, however, Ibrahim's is far and away the most useful, both in terms of conceptualization and in terms of substance.

To begin with the book's conceptualization: Ibrahim consciously and quite deliberately rejects the notion of an internally coherent and cohesive Coptic community led by the hierarchy of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Past analyses of the role of the Copts in contemporary Egyptian politics have commonly assumed that one can grasp communal politics through a close study of the Coptic patriarch-as representative of the Coptic community-and his interactions with the Egyptian state. Much to her credit, Ibrahim emphatically casts this assumption aside from the outset, insisting instead upon a notion of the Copts as an internally diverse community with no single representative or leadership. On this score, one need only keep in mind that there are Copts among both the wealthiest and the poorest Egyptians, and that from a political standpoint, the two very seldom hold much in common.

The sources upon which Ibrahim chiefly draws permit her to develop this nuanced image of the Copts, their politics, and their relations with Muslims and the state, for she turns away from the publications and narratives of the Church-upon which past accounts have drawn heavily-and mounts a careful exploration of the periodical literature published by lay Copts, particularly during the interwar period. There exists no comparable excavation of this fascinating and varied literature in English, with the possible exception of B. …

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