Minas Monir is a UK - based journalist, researcher and writer.
The author of several published studies on Theology, he is also an
expert on Egyptian affairs and political theology. He is currently a
Desk Editor at The Majalla, a magazine specializing in Middle East
affairs and is also an MA candidate at Cambridge Theological Federation.
For "Orthodoxy and the World".
“In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of
Egypt, and a monument to the LORD at its border.” Isaiah 19:19.
this prophecy that Isaiah wrote around 500 years BC while Jews were
captured in Babylon, had a resonance in Egypt on february 6th when
Christians celebrated services in the heart of Tahrir square. In a
fabulous scene not often witnessed in Egypt, Muslims formed a barrier
around them to protect Christians as they prayed. This mirrored the
gesture of Christians protecting Muslims at prayer in the same square
during the 18 days of demonstrations. This clearly showed that freedom
of speech, honorable life, and bread are justifiable demands for every
Egyptian who lived under such a regime for more than 3 decades
regardless of their religious or ideological background.
Yet there was some tension between these demands and the people’s
religious leaders. On the ground, the former Egyptian regime employed
media and religious institutions to abort this revolution a few weeks
before it took place. The Patriarch of the Copts, Shenouda III, and
Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Azhar, appeared on TV frequently to
show their solidarity with the former regime and its head, Mubarak.
Instructions for Copts in services not to go out and stay home were made
by the Holy Synod spokesmen three days before the revolution broke, on
Consequently, Egyptian Christians had to consider some fundamental
questions. To some degree they were forced to choose between the need
for bread and dignity on the one hand, and religious fulfillment in
obeying the patriarch on the other hand. It was a precious opportunity
to push people to question everything around them and, eventually, stand
for their liberty. Thousands of Christian youth appeared one day before
the revolution on Facebook declaring that they are part of the Egyptian
fabric and acting positively doesn’t violate their faith at all, as
some of the videos recorded on the internet stated. Because of this
decision, there in Tahrir square Egyptians left behind them sectarianism
and divisions. A culture of coexistence and harmony was growing in the
middle of the crisis.
However, before getting more optimistic regarding the current
situation after overthrowing Mubarak’s regime, there are geostrategic
and ideological challenges that will face Egyptians, and particularly
Christians. Egypt lies in the heart of the Middle East where radical
Islamists are waging their perpetual battle with Israel and the West.
Strategically speaking, a great challenge will face Egyptians in
blocking the waves of jihadists who started to use the Rafah border
crossing between Gaza and Egypt and illegal tunnels dug by Hamas.
There is also the heritage of Salafists who have invaded Egyptian media
since the 1980’s when the Wahhabi ideology came back to Egypt via
Egyptians who had worked in Saudi Arabia. News sources reported that
five radical Wahhabi channels that were previously blocked by Nilesat
Egyptian satellite, are now back on air and their broadcasts started by
praising the “Islamic State” Egypt. There is also the extent of the
influence of Egypt’s most established Islamist group, the Muslim
Brotherhood, to consider.
Despite the deeply rooted Islamist movements in the Egyptian social
culture, particularly after 1970, Egyptians have the potential to build a
civil state that can protect the full citizenship rights of the
different elements of its fabric, including Christians. This can be
achieved through a vital role played by pro-civil state streams, and
Christians should be one of them.
What prevents Christians from their full practice of political rights
is the heavy heritage of negativity towards political life in Egypt.
This comes directly from the consecutive regimes that governed Egypt and
ignored strong and efficient Christian figures to contribute to
political life since the early 1950’s. The Wafd party which always
preserved the equal contribution of Christians and Jews along with
Muslims in the governments of pre-1952 revolution Egypt was dissolved
and brought back in the 70’s with a completely new identity that cannot
function in holding different Egyptians of various religious backgrounds
Observers note the sociological and cultural shift in Egypt after former
president Sadat, who succeeded Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1970, began to
employ religion intensively to erase the challenging legacy of Nasserism
and present an alternative type of heroism for the new president. As
Nasser was the hero of 1952 revolution and founder of socialist Egypt,
Sadat became the hero of 1973 Yom Kippur war who launched what was
called the “state of science and faith” whereby he called himself the
Sadat released Islamists who were arrested in the time of his
predecessor and gave freedom to the Muslim Brotherhood to revive their
activities. He also made constitutional amendments that designated
Islamic Law as the main “source of legislation” in Egypt. This played
the biggest role in deviating Copts from political life. Sadat used the
Church with its high impact on Christian millions in Egypt and
relationships with the West for political interests. Sources close to
Sadat suggest that he chose his preferred candidate for the next
patriarch to be installed as head of the Coptic Church. This was
Shenouda’s post after the assassination of Sadat was to represent Copts
before president. This limited Copts to the Patriarch’s own political
view instead of encouraging them to personally engage with politics and
seek their rights. In 2005 the first direct-poll presidential election
witnessed the climax of the intertwined relationship between the Church
and state. Patriarch Shenouda III and the Holy Synod published an
advertisement in the official Patriarchal bulletin declaring that the
Church supports Mubarak for president.
A few years later, there were controversies regarding the possible
inheritance of the presidential office by Gamal, Mubarak’s son.
Strikingly, Bishop Bishoy and Patriarch Shenouda III on TV and in
newspapers backed Gamal to run for president in the next presidential
election. In the current revolution, Shenouda III spoke to Egyptian TV
live in February 7th to declare his full solidarity with Mubarak and
explained his rejection of the youth revolution.
This demonstrated the disconnect between the patriarch and the Copts
who found their aspiration better represented by this popular
revolution. The absence of Copts from the social and political life and
their retreat into the church led to the failure to change the
situation. However, the amazing awareness of the justifiable demands for
change led them to break through the classic fences built by church and
state in the last 40 years. And today we witnessed political secular
thinkers and young men who managed to achieve a balance in the religious
profile of the revolution.
The challenge today for Christians in
Egypt is to make use of the open atmosphere to act positively in order
to achieve a series of legislative and constitutional reformations in
order to guard the right of citizenship of every Egyptian regardless of
his/her ideological or religious background. Citizenship should be the
main challenge for the next stage in the political life of Egypt. But it
won’t see any progress without a faithful contribution in forming a
better and modern civil state that can express its diversity within the
articles of a new constitution guarded by a sincere love for Egypt and