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Out of Egypt: Coptic Christians Struggle with Uncertainties

October 1, 2011

In June I traveled to New York to visit an old friend of mine from Egypt, Fr. Doug May, a Maryknoll priest who used to teach theology at the Catholic Coptic seminary.

“What is it with the Salafis?” he asked. “I lived in Egypt seventeen years, I traveled up and down the Nile visiting villages in the south and everywhere else, and I don’t think I ever heard of the Salafis. Now that’s all I hear about.”

I was astonished. I gave a quick mini-lecture on Salafis, but I couldn’t figure out how a guy who’d lived in Egypt three times as long as I had, spoke better Arabic and had seen more of the country, especially the southern governorates where Islamism is supposed to be strongest, would not have heard of Salafis.

And then I started thinking about it and realized that almost nobody I knew in Egypt ever mentioned Salafis in those days. I knew about them because I’m a social scientist and it was my job to read as much as I could on all aspects of Egyptian life, and the Middle East more generally. But Salafis just didn’t come up in conversations. There’s not one reference in my field notes from 1998-2002, and only one in my field notes from 2005.

They were not seen by most people as much of a political or social force.

The Mubarak regime routinely repressed the Salafis for decades, throwing their leaders in prison or sending them fleeing into exile, although some pundits now claim (with hindsight on their side) that he was encouraging them after the 2005 elections as a counter to the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood. More importantly, the revolution set free those imprisoned Salafi leaders, and other leaders returned from abroad.

As far as most sociologists can tell, the Salafis are not numerous, but they are loud, given to political theatrics up to and including attacks on Christians, and Sufi and Shi’ite Muslim shrines. And no one really know yet how influential they are. Polls say they influence maybe 15% of Egyptians but the real test won’t come until constitutional reform, and elections.

Now fear of Salafis is driving people out of Egypt, according to an article entitled “In Egypt, the Lure of Leaving” by Negar Azimi last month in the New York Times Magazine. Well, them, the bad economy and the uncertainty about the future.

There is nothing new about people wanting to leave Egypt. There is a whole section on this in Connected in Cairo. But the NYT article says the numbers of Egyptians getting exit visas in the first half of this year is double what it was the previous year.

And when read closely, it’s clear that the article is really about Coptic Christians leaving, or trying to leave, Egypt. And it’s primarily about cosmopolitan Copts, since they are the only ones with the wherewithall–the economic and cultural capital–to leave.

What’s interesting is that the reporter’s sources tell her that things were better under Mubarak. But when the reporter asks for examples she gets the usual: Church burnings. Assaults. Riots over supposed forced conversions.

These things also happened under Mubarak. And when they did, most Copts complained (accurately) that security police were slow to respond, and engaged in only cursory investigations that rarely led to convictions.

Which makes me suspect that what they are really fleeing now is not the unpleasant realities so much as the uncertainties.

It is difficult to be a Copt in Egypt. A large and visible minority, enjoying de jure equality and de facto discrimination, undercounted in the census and underrepresented in the political and legal system. Like marginalized communities throughout the world, they are framed by ambiguities and anomalies: the richest man in Egypt is a Copt, but so are a large percentage of the nation’s poorest.

While the revolution held out dramatic hope for a different future, one in which the Copts could come out of the shadows and fully participate in a modern democratic society, it has also held out many dark portents of possible futures in which the Copts are second-class citizens legally as well as in reality, or even under some “protected minority status” like in Iran.

And it is a truism of political science and comparative sociology that socially and economically marginalized communities almost always feel the pains of uncertainty more strongly than majority populations, and that economic downturns produce scapegoating and higher levels of human rights violations against them.

Even in Western industrialized nations with strong democratic traditions, anti-immigration rhetoric and hate-crimes rise with economic downturns and diminish with cycles of prosperity.

To be a Coptic Christian during Egypt’s experimental moment is necessarily to experience the future as more ambiguous, and hence at once more hopeful (you have more to gain, at least collectively) and more frightening (for you face greater risks, collectively and individually) than to be a Muslim.

And so they face the difficult choice: if we leave, we protect our families from possible violence, intolerance and harm. But if the wealthiest and most educated Copts leave, who will fight for the place of the Copts in Egypt’s future?

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