Church and state - a window on Egypt's revolution

Church and state - a window on Egypt's revolution
4 min read
23 Jan, 2015
The rise and fall of Egypt's Arab Spring can be neatly traced through the severing and restoration of country's the church-state alliance.
The Copts were at the forefront of the 2011 revolt [Getty]

Four years have passed since those momentous days that were to mark the beginnings of the Egyptian revolution. Perhaps one of the most telling signs of the political and cultural distance we have travelled since those exceptional days can be seen in the changing role and symbolism of the Coptic community.

The mass participation of Coptic youth in Tahrir and in most other occupations and events of the 2011 revolution was central to ensuring the secular democratic thrust of the first waves of the revolution.

Even after the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements joined the protests, the visible presence of tens of thousands of young Coptic men and women and their intermingling with the majority Muslims made religious sectarianism a practical impossibility, at that moment.

Many of the Copts, already angered by a bomb attack on an Alexandrian church during on New Year's Eve, rightly directed their anger at the state and police who at the very least did not protect the church and, according to some accounts, actually perpetrated the bomb attack.

Relationship at breaking point

The church hierarchy was not happy about Coptic participation in the revolution. The late pope Shenuda was a close ally of Mubarak. The arrangement between state and church has sometimes been called a "neo millet" system inherited from Ottoman times, whereby the state leaves control of the religious and personal status laws affecting the Coptic population in the hands of the church, in return for allegiance to the state and its ruling party.

However this archaic arrangement had reached breaking point by the end of the Mubarak era, with increasing participation of Copts in opposition to Mubarak and his ruling party outside the control of the church hierarchy. The pope was rapidly losing his grip over the Copts just as Mubarak was losing his over Egypt.

The Tahrir of January 2011 epitomised this process. Yet the revolution that overthrew Mubarak had not overthrown the regime he represented. The revolution was incomplete. Mubarak's generals took power and immediately started working to bring back order and restore the heavily shaken dictatorial powers of the old regime.

The tragedy of the Tahrir revolution was that the Muslim Brotherhood was the only organised political force with a large enough base to present a viable political alternative. They had no interest in promoting the secular democratic nature of the revolution - symbolised, above all, by the mass participation of Coptic youth.

A rise in sectarian tensions in the south during 2011, the burning of several churches with the conspicuous absence of protection from the army led to mass demonstrations by angry Copts who assembled outside the state-owned television building Maspero in October of that year.

Although the demonstration and assembly was peaceful, it was brutally attacked by army forces using live ammunition and army vehicles ploughing through demonstrators. Twenty-six people were killed and scores of others wounded. Egyptian state television called on Muslims to head to the area to protect the army from attack by Christians, further inflaming sectarian tensions.

     The Brotherhood further inflamed sectarian tensions and opened the path towards the renewal of the Copt-state alliance.


The rise of the Brotherhood to power presented them with both a historical opportunity and dilemma - again perhaps symbolised by their attitude towards the Copts. Would they be able and willing to take the revolution forward through further mass democratic mobilisation to complete the dismantling of the Mubarak state? Or would they continue in their collusion with the generals in the hope that the latter would share some of their immense power with the movement?

Unfortunately the Brotherhood was structurally incapable of pursuing the first path. Again the example of the Copts makes this abundantly clear. Furthering the revolutionary mobilisation meant building on the unity of January 2011, above all a unity that overcame religious sectarian divisions. Yet the sectarian nature of the Brotherhood meant it actually went in the opposite direction, further inflaming sectarian tensions and opening the path towards both the restoration of church control over the Coptic community and the restoration of the old state-church alliance.

Nothing symbolises that restoration and the distance between 2011 and 2015 more than the well-choreographed visit by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the cathedral during Christmas prayers and that fatal embrace with his ally and friend Pope Tawadrus among the jubilation of the Christian worshippers.

It is important here to realise the historical failures of the left and the revolutionary democratic forces in general when it comes to the Coptic question.

The rise of the Coptic youth during the January revolution was part of what was historically called the festival of the oppressed. All oppressed sections of the Egyptian population were in upheaval, led above all by women. Yet political forces dedicated to the liberation of the oppressed were unable to create a strong enough platform as an alternative to the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and a strong enough force against the restorationist military dictatorship.

The Coptic youth were left with no alternative but a return to the confined space of the church and its long-term alliance with the Mubarak state.