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Playing the Numbers Game: Copts and the Exercise of Power
With 25 January upon us yet again, the “Coptic question” remains as salient as ever. This hermeneutic expression, similar to Shlomo Sand’s historicization of what was the “Jewish question,” in the context of contemporary Egyptian nationalism, is important to interrogate. This is in light of continued state-focused analysis post 25 January 2011, which seems to have been reified over the past two years. From electoral results and state dynamics to constitutional drafting and ratification, the Copts find themselves in a precarious position vis-à-vis the state and a new political reality. Perhaps more so now than the past few decades they are increasingly on the fringes of formalized political expression and participation. Most attempts to inject a critique of the status quo are met with the demographic argument—if there were more Copts then the realities would reflect their political will. The overwhelming obsession with both state and nationalism often yields a discourse of identity that places Copts within a narrow confine. In parallel, continued fascination with the symbolism of intertwined crosses and crescents on protest signs, priests and sheikhs arm-in-arm in marches serve to create superficial imagery foregrounded by an extended lacuna.
As the offensive film, The Innocence of Muslims, made news worldwide in the fall of 2012, and with one of its producers being a United States-based Copt, the discourse of sectarianism reached a momentary crescendo and rendered Copts pariahs to be controlled and necessitating the exercise of “power” over them. While all of Egypt’s Churches and their congregations denounced the movie and moved to a reactionary defensive mode, Copts continue to be lumped together and seen as a monolith, both in the diaspora and in Egypt, feeding tension, collective indictment, and, in some cases, sedition. Calls to disentangle diasporic Coptic communities and local ones continued to fall on deaf ears as the objectification of Copts reduced them to identitarian categories, and subjected them to a discourse that sought to divide only along the lines of geography and homogenizes based on affiliation. The diaspora continues to be lumped together discursively with the institutions of the Church, and competitively with the state and Islamist politics. Few have gone beyond this to question how representative a single American Copt is of the diaspora and Copts at large. This divisive practice reached a crescendo fueled by a discourse of sectarianism. Coptic 38 , a group that joined protests at the US Embassy, attests to the knee-jerk reaction and attack on the diaspora (collectively) made by Islamists due to the offensive movie. One of the mechanisms this divisive practice operates is by the quantification of Copts in Egypt; the insistence of linking the human rights agenda in Egypt to numerical representation. This dynamic is consistent with the view of feminists who seek to offset “gender imbalance” and achieve parity.
After Egyptian media reported the head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics’ (CAPMAS) statement that Copts were five million and 130 thousand (roughly 6.3 percent of the country’s population), he went out and later clarified that this was not an exact figure and that CAPMAS had refrained from doing censuses of Copts. The initial estimate was roughly 11.6 percent of the Egyptian population. This estimate was quoted by Mohammed Hassanein Heikal's Autumn of Fury almost thirty years ago. The controversy over numbers was rekindled in 2007 when Abul Ela Mady, founder of the then-outlawed moderate Islamist Al-Wasat party, argued that Copts do not exceed six percent, not only adhering to the government number from the 1976 census, but also arguing that they are precisely 4.2 million. The peculiarity continues with Ibn Khaldun Center's 1996 estimate that Copts are five million (making them seven percent in 1996). Not only would that suggest that Copts are leaving Egypt, but it would also draw the picture of a massive exodus that has a one percent of population growth between 1996 and 2007, a claim that is not supported qualitatively and one that we should lay to rest. One of the claims of Abul Ela Mady's "study" asserted that the British censuses grouped British Christians together with Egyptian Christians. This was widely contested and as such led to a backlash that precipitated Amin Iskandar of the Karama party’s reaction in his published column "I cannot hide my anger."
When contextualized, this is in part a continuation of a larger controversy since the 1976 government census that claimed Copts are 6.31 percent. In response to his pronouncement, Bishop Marcos, spokesman for the Coptic Church, announced that the number of Copts ranges between ten to twelve million, about fifteen percent of the Egyptian population (Nahdat Misr, 12–13 July 2007); for Copts to be six percent, it would mean they had been leaving Egypt since the beginning of the twentieth century, a claim backed up by consecutive British censuses starting in 1907; ones that the likes of Abul Ela Mady refute.
Fundamentally, the Egyptian government has long avoided making any public announcements regarding the percentage of Copts since then; the 1976 census came after late President Anwar Sadat was infuriated with Shenouda's response to ongoing sectarian incidents that saw many Copts die. It was a veiled threat to the Coptic community about their insignificance as a national constituency; this claim can only be made by referencing Copts’ numbers. The need to quantify the number of non-Muslims, specifically Christians, has been practiced in order to be able to tie their rights to their numbers. The biggest examples are the number of seats Christians received in the Constituent Assembly (Two for the Orthodox Church and one for the Catholic Church and one for Protestant Church) and the stipulation in the draft bill that would associate the construction of Churches with the number of native Christians residing in that area.
The continued fascination with the quantification of Copts has been heightened once more by many unsubstantiated claims citing the number of Copts leaving Egypt. One estimate cites 100,000 Copts have left Egypt since early 2012 but offers no evidence to back this claim. The controversy was so large that Dennis Ross of the Washington Institute for Near East studies, in an attempt to criticize Mohamed Morsi in the Washington Post, also cited the number, which compelled the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Egypt to contest Ross’ statement and claim it is exaggerated. The discourse on Copts is effectively reduced to a numbers game in an attempt to outmaneuver the Islamists and critique them. Yet this discussion must be engaged within the context of the rules and formations of the discourse by backing such claims with verifiable statistics.
To understand why there is such a fascination with statistics on Christians in Egypt, one needs to take a look at the history of the debate and explore the avenues by which it empowered the different parties in their claims. There are often details that are purposefully hidden which serve as a backdrop to these different statistical claims. Only by exploring these incidents can we understand how different estimates are put in place to pigeonhole Copts and others to accentuate their plight and fuel sectarianism. Just as the government has its disputed statistics so too are there others who obsessively measure Coptic immigrants where no mechanisms of quantification exist. For a majority of reactionary politicians, it becomes an issue that can readily be mobilized on and a way to perpetuate an identity war at the expense of more pressing national issues such as police reform, judicial reform, a law allowing non-Muslims to build places of worship, socio-economic grievances, and the resilience of the state’s authoritarian structures. In fact, overstating “the Coptic issue” hides the plight of Baha’is and other woefully underrepresented groups. In order to discuss human rights violations in Egypt, one needs to be inside a special group sanctioned by the discourse propagated by the government and its religious institutions. Thus the international arena and issue of the Coptic diaspora has become a harbinger in contemporary Egyptian politics.
There is still a gaping hole in the social scientific study of Coptic migration and most experts such as Ghada Botros admit that there are no available statistics on Copts in the diaspora. It is only in Toronto that an estimate exists where the Coptic Christian Egyptian community is at 200,000 following a lengthy and detailed comparative study by Botros . She points out that because being Coptic is not an ethnicity, it is impossible to quantify incoming Coptic immigrants from Egyptians. There continues to be a debate among the diaspora as to whether to petition Western governments to classify being Coptic as its own ethnicity; most however reject that proposal and tend to prefer their Egyptian identity. It is interesting to note that the issue has been debated while explicitly stating that it is for the sole purpose of raising awareness for the Coptic cause. This issue is unfolding on the discussion boards of some Coptic Churches in the United States and elsewhere. The decision not to pursue classifying Coptic ethnicity as its own category, while may give rise to speculation and fuel the debate, is laudable for several reasons. The most important is that Copts do not follow the steps of government-influenced research that pushes for ethnic identity based on religion. The biggest example is social science research in Canada, where Judaism qualifies on a census as both a religion and an ethnicity. Though Canada seems to have an ongoing debate on what constitutes an ethnicity and its relatively arbitrary definition, they serve as a good example to show the dangers of religious identity solely . This attitude would arguably increase tension and lead to furthering sectarian strife.
Back to Egypt: The 1976 Census
The Al Khanka incident is a vivid reminder of how the politics of numbers can fuel a discourse that limits and dominates Copts. In 1972, Muslims clashed with Copts over the use of a private home as a chapel in Al Khanka, rural village outside Cairo. As a result, the Chapel was torched by Muslims. In response, Pope Shenouda III sent one hundred bishops and priests to have a vigil at the sight; infuriating Sadat. Muslims then rallied after the incitement by the state and a riot took place under the watchful eye of security forces who did not interfere. This is what some people mistakenly say was the first time that Copts fought back. The confrontation continued and matters escalated even more so to new amendments to Islamize Egypt’s constitution. This was an effective way for Sadat to quell the population and begin building support via an Islamic base. The Al Khanka incident among others would be used as evidence to support the claim that Copts were preparing for a state in Upper Egypt. Following the rhetoric of "numbers don't lie," the Egyptian government snubbed the late Pope Shenouda with its 6.1 percent estimate after the Al Khanka incident. The Church produced a long volume about previous censuses and how population growth rates denied this.
Unfortunately, however, this perpetuated the binary of refuting each estimate with a countervailing figure. The hidden part of this statistical debate is the continued denial of rights for all; instead, it was through congregations and large families that collective demands were made. By taking part in the statistical debate, some Copts acquiesced and tied their rights to their size and wealth. After census data about Copts were gathered, some proceeded to measure their land holdings and wealth. Islamists then readily used this information to talk about imperial designs to divide Egypt and automatically dismissed these writings as a British source that alters Egyptian identity and creates an imbalance in society. Examples include Abul Ela Mady’s “study” that continues to be referenced by Fahmy Houidy, Rafiq Habib, and Tariq Al Bishri whose books on the Coptic issue are prime examples a perpetuation of this binary. The discourse rarely leaves this group of “moderate” Islamists. The fact is that Fahmy Houidy  defended Sheikh Ghazali who was summoned to Farag Fouda’s assassin’s trial to testify and ended up defending him saying he had killed an apostate. The quantification of the Coptic issue had rendered the cause dialectical and confined it within a rhetoric of political correctness consistent with a pre-determined agenda—one that is increasingly domineering.
While historically, Copts have been organized around this Ottoman Millet system (which made registering births, deaths, and communicating demands to the ruler the job of the community head), unfortunately the Egyptian government and the Coptic Church had continued this dynamic since Gamal Abdel Nasser. Take, for example, Pope Cyril VI’s demand for building Churches:
[I]t was understandably humiliating for the Patriarch to find that any applications for building permits he made got lost in the labyrinth of the Ministry of Interior. So he approaches Nasser on the subject. Nasser was sympathetic, and asked how many new churches the Patriarch thought he needed. The answer was between twenty and thirty a year. Right, said Nasser, and immediately gave him permission to build twenty-five new churches a year (Heikal, 1983: 153)
Far from celebrating this achievement, the Pope had to secure continued concessions to build Churches if the regime did not object to any of his policies. This is how the Coptic Church was kept in check. The Church is thus continually cornered by its propagation of a narrative that is statistical instead of a strategy calling for the rule of law or equality. This has become the dominant, and only, method, of accruing concessions from an intransigent state. With the absence of a strong human rights agenda, the only language that the government understood was that of numbers. That is why it dominated debates both inside the institutions of the state and the public sphere. Even old letters from the early twentieth century, such as Hardinge and Rosebarry's correspondences , always focused on the number of Coptic schools, Coptic families, and their land.
This undoubtedly is the product of the Millet system. It is not uncommon for Coptic groups and for the Church to use wealthy congregation members as its interlocutors and lobbyists. This often amplified sectarianism to a large extent and politicized basic questions related to freedom of belief. The binary is therefore recreated with each side using its own statistics. On the one hand, the government claims Copts are a small minority and on the other hand Copts refute this and claim they have a wider material base and that their numbers are greater. This is a knee-jerk reaction to offset what Copts perceive as a lost battle due to their small numbers. The question should not be who benefits by increasing or lowering the estimate of Copts in Egypt, rather it should be to what means does this keep those in power secure? The fact that neither the Church nor the government have laid this question to rest shows a continued desire to propagate the discourse of sectarianism. The “statification” of the Coptic question institutionalizes power dynamics that disfavor and discipline Copts. This narrative is constructed as Copts as vying for an alternative identity” that is due to their strong alleged material base .
More often than not, Copts are mistakenly accused of wanting a Coptic state. Egyptian identity is an idea that is undefined but those who construct it in a certain way do so to omit Copts' nationalistic role and construct it to exclude them in society. That is why Copts in the diaspora are not only treated monolithically but are also demonized by state and Church. Instead, those who construct Egyptian identity in an exclusionary manner do so to disregard Egypt's past and instead view Copts as part of a British “divide and rule” strategy. Thus the binary and improvisation of statistics in studying Copts often says more about the power struggles than the "truth." Instead, it constructs a reality that accentuates some facts while hiding others. The numbers game in the Coptic issue thus becomes good currency for those attacking imperialism and Egypt's monarchic era and for those accruing concessions for the Coptic community while hiding the need for equality—Copts instead settle for equity not equality under the Millet system, a system the British inherited from the Ottomans.
British Numbers and their Impact
Citing several Egyptian sources, Samir Seikaly looked at the status of Copts in the early twentieth century:
"These opinions could be dismissed as being subjective and possibly biased. Facts, however, substantiate them...It was in this golden age that what was a dwindling minority in the mid-eighteenth century swelled into an entrenched one of about a million in 1914. This expanding number were given opportunities for education. In 1892 al-Tawfiq [a Coptic civil society organization], in its report on Coptic schools, regretted that there were no more than half a dozen Coptic schools, providing for the education of no more than 961 Coptic students. Indeed it recorded that there were no more than 1,674 Coptic students in all the schools in Egypt. By 1907 there were, we are told, 46 Coptic schools which, together with government and other denominational schools, catered for 21,675 Coptic students, among them 5,681 girls. In 1910 the number of Coptic students had risen further to 28,962, other, that is, than 243 students in colleges for further education. Simultaneously, a relatively large number of Coptic students were receiving some kind of technical and industrial training in two schools established by the Patriarchate and the Tawfiq society."
Seikaly therefore refutes claims of British preference for Copts or of their material cooperation with the British but he does show how there exists little post-modern historical accounts. Instead, statistics on Copts continued to bounce from each pedagogue to another—with Copts viewed either suspiciously as Compradors or as the leading prosperous community. Seikaly cites several sources including the 1907 Al-Hilal figure putting Copts at seven percent but remarks: "[T]hese figures must be treated with extreme care, but they indicate a healthy appetite for economic activity. One of the few Coptic historians explained this excessive concern with things material." One should, therefore, be able to conclude that far from those who took Lord Cromer, Kitchener, and Hardinges' letters seriously and complemented Copts, there were others who disputed these accounts. Copts were not a group that received preferential treatment, nor were they superior.
Rather, the historiography of that time period on Copts is symptomatic of a larger theme in the early twentieth century—an excessive fascination with all things material and landholdings. Through that, Britain tightened its grasp over Egypt, and along the way sought to catalogue all things to do with Egypt. In its effort to bring Egypt’s resources and society under control, Coptic history suffered, too. It is therefore ironic that some of the vocal critics of the British, such as Abul Ela Mady and Tariq al Bishri , continue to question what the British did in an attempt to control a group in society by quantifying them. While British sources on Egypt are not the best, it does not automatically follow that they did so with the agenda of empowering Copts and amplifying their numbers. Those writing on the matter would be well advised to move past this impasse and understand how statistics were a tool in the hands of the colonizer whose “method” at times meant differentiating Christian names from Muslim ones in a registry. This was how the British undertook their project of controlling Egypt. Asking which statistic is "correct" is the wrong question; instead that number should be disregarded entirely along with the connotations and power claims it furthers. At this juncture in the revolution’s life, Coptic history, and to a larger extent Egyptian history, must be reinterpreted without predisposed ideas about the Egyptian state and its identity. It must not be charted by the polarized dichotomy of nationalism and colonialism.
1 A Coptic pressure group that scrutinizes issues to do with Copts in Egypt. Their biggest cause is bringing back the 1938 personal status law that allowed Copts the right to divorce
2 For an electronic copy of Amin Iskandar’s article see this archived piece.
3 Joanne van Dijk, and Ghada Botros. 2009. The importance of ethnicity and religion in the life cycle of immigrant churches: A comparison of Coptic and Calvinist churches. Canadian Ethnic Studies 41 (1): 191-214. Botros, Ghada, 2006. Religious identity as an historical narrative: Coptic orthodox immigrant churches and the representation of history. Journal of Historical Sociology 19 (2): 174-201.
4 Joanne van Dijk, and Ghada Botros. 2009 pp-193
5 Hassan, Sana. 2003. Christians versus Muslim in modern Egypt: The century-long struggle for Coptic equality. New York: Oxford University Press
6 A series of exchanges and diaries of British figures who were alive during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. See Carter, R.B.L. 1986. The Copts in Egyptian Politics. Dover, NH: Croom Helm.
7 Some sources detail British land data that shows how the Coptic Waqf organization and the Al-Tawfiq society had a significant amount of land compared to total land holdings. See Carter 1986
8 Tariq-Al Bishri’s “Muslims and Copts the nationalistic group” (al –Muslimun wa-al-Aqbat fi itar al-jam’ah al-wataniyah (Cairo, 1977) is an example of where he views the issue with a purely nationalistic lens.
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