Did Egyptian President Gamal Nasser Protect the Copts?

Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970)

Gamal Abdel Nasser was one of the most transformative and influential leaders in the modern Middle East. As president of Egypt from 1956-1970, he helped transform his country from a proud but backwater state to the leading nation-state in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Nasser introduced the concept of Arab Socialism, which besides being a new economic idea helped to unify much of the Arab world under his leadership, briefly joining with Syria as a single state.

To the Arab street, as well as the political leaders in the region, Nasser was an unwavering bulwark against the West and Israel, which was partially made possible by his close relations with the Soviet Union. Nasser’s alliance with the Soviets not only helped to modernize the Egyptian military but also served to improve the country’s ancient infrastructure through projects such as the Aswan Dam. But as much as Nasser is remembered as a source of strength for modern Egypt, his domestic policies on religion were complicated and sometimes contradictory.

Gamal Nasser, like the vast majority of modern Egyptians, was a Muslim, but also like most Egyptians of the time he was, for the most part, non-practicing and personally respected the rights of Egypt’s native Christian minority, the Copts. Despite his personally moderate views on religion, Nasser developed an ever-changing and somewhat capricious relationship with the fundamentalist organization the Muslim Brotherhood. Although he did not agree with most of the Muslim Brotherhood’s theological and political ideas, members of the group helped him achieve power so he at first rewarded the group, but later went to war against it. In the middle of Nasser’s struggles was the Coptic community, whose right to exist he gave lip service to, but at the same time, he often initiated laws that stripped them of their rights in order to placate the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Copts of Egypt

A Coptic Cathedral in Cairo

Generally speaking, any native Egyptian Christian is a Copt, but the term more specifically relates to members of the Egyptian Orthodox or Coptic Church. Today, Copts comprise about 10% of Egypt’s population, but they were once the dominant people in the land. In fact, the Copts are considered the most direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians due to a combination of Egyptian marriage laws and tradition. Since the Islamic conquest of Egypt, applications of Islamic, or sharia law by different governments has meant that the progeny of Copt-Muslim unions are Muslims, which means that nearly all modern Copts have a lineage that is pre-Arab conquest. The term “Copt” is also pre-Arab, being derived from the Greek term for Egypt, Aegyptus. [1] Essential elements of the Coptic culture can also be traced by to pharaonic Egypt. The Coptic language, which is now almost entirely a liturgical language, is basically a dialect of the ancient Egyptian language used by the pharaohs but written with a modified Greek script. [2] The fortunes of the Coptic community ebbed and flowed under the Romans and Byzantines, but everything changed drastically in AD 642.

The year 642 proved to be a watershed in the history of the Copts because it was during that year that the Arab Muslims conquered Egypt. After the Islamic conquest of Egypt, the Copts were for the most part relegated to second-class status and at time subjected to persecution. The Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, and to a lesser extent the early Ottomans who ruled Egypt placed the entire country under sharia, which meant that the Coptic population steadily declined, while the Muslim population increased due to not so devout Christians who wanted to advance in the new social system. For the most part, the Copts learned to live with the situation, serving their Muslim leaders, but anti-Christian sentiment occasionally erupted in the destruction of churches and monasteries. The Fatimid caliph al-Hakim (996-1021) particularly subjected the Coptic community to violence and discrimination. [3]

When the Ottoman Turks conquered Egypt in 1517, they divided the religious communities of the country according to their millet system and continued the use of sharia law, but there were no widespread or massive anti-Christian pogroms under their rule. In fact, the Ottomans gave the Copts many rights that were denied them under previous Islamic dynasties, such as the right to bear arms and to serve in the military. [4] Another significant change that took place during Ottoman rule in Egypt that affected the Copts was a kindling of modern, non-sectarian Egyptian nationalism. [5]

The Flag of the Egyptian Wafd Party

The nascent native nationalism that began to take hold in Egypt during Ottoman rule came to full fruition after the British conquered the country in 1882. Native Egyptian nationalism became ascendant in political circles during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which was led by the Wafd Party. The Wafd Party was founded by Saad Zaghloul (1859-1927) in 1919 as a secular pro-independence nationalist party. Zaghloul made sure to emphasize the organization’s secular nature by having both Muslims and Copts in important positions, holding interfaith marches, and by adopting a party flag that featured both the Islamic crescent and the Coptic cross, although the crescent was noticeably larger. [6] The Copts appeared poised to position themselves in a favorable spot when Egypt finally achieved independence.

Nasser Comes to Power

St. Anthony’s Coptic Monastery

The modern Egyptian nation-state finally achieved independence in 1922 with mixed results. The government installed was a constitutional monarchy that was profoundly corrupt and little more than a puppet of the British. The new government did, however, unite secularists, Islamists, and Copts in their distaste and sometimes outright hatred for it, which resulted in numerous anti-government plots. On July 23, 1952, a group of military officers known as the “Free Officers” overthrew the government in a bloodless coup d’état, installing a constitutional republic that was little more than a military dictatorship. The Free Officers were led by Gamal Nasser, who became president of Egypt in 1956 after overthrowing Muhammad Naguib. [7] Nasser appealed to the Egyptian people as a populist reformer, employing secular, pan-Arab rhetoric to appeal to a wider audience. In his speeches, Nasser did not rail against the native Coptic community but instead emphasized his opposition to Western interlopers, Zionists in general, and the state of Israel in particular. But as Nasser climbed the rungs of power, many individuals and organizations that supported him along the way called in favors, one of which was the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949)

Perhaps no organization has influenced the course of modern Egypt’s history than the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1929 in the city of Ismailiya by Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to make Egypt an Islamic state whereby all aspects of life would be subject to Islamic law. The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Banna recognized the large minority Coptic community in Egypt and even believed the Copts had a right to exist but also thought that they should live in a subordinate position to Muslims, similar to the practices of earlier Islamic dynasties. [8] The Muslim Brotherhood would eventually become the largest Islamist movement in the modern world, with chapters in several countries, but in Egypt, it was almost immediately viewed with suspicion and then derision by the government. The Brotherhood began an insurgency against the government in the late 1940s, which culminated in with the death of al-Banna in 1949. After al-Banna’s death, though, the Brotherhood changed tactics and began working with the Free Officers against their common enemies – the monarchy and the British. [9]

The Free Officer’s deal with the Muslim Brotherhood proved to be Faustian in nature because once Nasser came to power he was forced to make several concessions to the Islamists, which often came to the detriment of the Coptic community. The centralized bureaucracy of the new Egyptian government increasingly took on an Islamic identity, institutionalizing prejudice and discrimination against the Copts. For example, Coptic culture was not mentioned in school curriculums and the number of Christian civil servants was severely curtailed. A ministry of Islamic affairs was established in 1955, which immediately went to legal war against the Coptic Church by confiscating Church land, delaying the permits for building new churches, and nationalizing some private lands owned by Copts. [10] The separate Christian religious courts, which were a holdover from the Ottoman millet system, were also closed. [11]

In fairness to Nasser, he never displayed any invective against the Copts in public and there were no major anti-Christian pogroms in Egypt during his rule, but they were also rarely mentioned as an integral part of Egyptian identity and clearly not a component of the president’s “three circles” ideology of Arab, Africa, and Islam. [12] Although the Coptic community did not experience the levels of anti-Christian violence that they would be subjected to later during the reigns of Sadat and Mubarak, Nasser’s anti-Christian legislation led to many conversions and a further eroding of the Coptic community. It is estimated that during the 1960s around 5,000 Copts converted to Islam every year. [13]

Conclusion

The Coptic community has had a precarious existence in modern Egypt. Copts are routinely subjected to legal discrimination, assaults, pogroms, and more recently terrorist bombings at their churches. Since Gamal Nasser is considered the father of the modern Egyptian nation-state, it is fair to consider if and how he protected Egypt’s beleaguered Christian minority. Although Nasser never encouraged violence against the Copts, and there was little of the violence against the Christian community that took place under presidents Sadat and Mubarak, his political alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood resulted in widespread institutionalized discrimination against the Copts, which one could argue played a role in the anti-Christian violence in Egypt today.

References

  1. Nisan, Modechai. Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression. Second Edition. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, 2002), p. 134
  2. Wakin, Edward. A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt’s Copts. (Lincoln, Nebraska: Backinprint.com, 2000), p. 7
  3. Wakin, p. 8
  4. Wakin, pgs. 9-10
  5. Guirguis, Max. “Islamic Resurgence and Its Consequences in the Egyptian Experience.” Mediterranean Studies 20 (2012) p. 190
  6. Guirgis, p. 191
  7. Guirguis, p. 195
  8. Waikin, pgs. 73-74
  9. Guirguis, pgs. 193-4
  10. Guirguis, pgs.195-6
  11. Nisan, p. 144
  12. Nisan, p. 145
  13. Wakin, p. 49