Skip to main content


  • Paul Sedra (a1)

The sparse scholarship on the political role of Coptic Christians in modern Egypt almost always takes the Coptic Orthodox Church as a point of departure, assuming that the head of the church, the Coptic patriarch, is not only the spiritual leader of the community but its political leader as well. This article argues that the disproportionate attention afforded to the Coptic Orthodox Church in this scholarship has obscured intra-communal dynamics of the Copts that are essential to an understanding of their political role. Through an analysis of historical struggles between the Coptic clergy and the Coptic laity for influence in Egyptian politics, as well as a particular focus on how these struggles have played out in the arena of personal status law, the article demonstrates that Egyptian politics and Coptic communal dynamics are deeply intertwined, to a degree often disregarded both by Copts and by Egypt analysts.

Hide All

1 For accounts of this growth, see, for example, Gaffney, Patrick D., The Prophet's Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Ismail, Salwa, Rethinking Islamist Politics: Culture, the State and Islamism (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006); Meijer, Roel (ed.), Global Salafism: Islam's New Religious Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009); and Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky, Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).

2 Among the important exceptions to the rule are Elsässer, Sebastian, The Coptic Question in the Mubarak Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Ibrahim, Vivian, The Copts of Egypt (London: I. B. Tauris, 2011); Guirguis, Magdi and Doorn-Harder, Nelly van, The Emergence of the Modern Coptic Papacy (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2011); Carter, B. L., The Copts in Egyptian Politics 1918–1952 (London: Croom Helm, 1986); Ansari, Hamied, “Sectarian Conflict in Egypt and the Political Expediency of Religion,” Middle East Journal 38, no. 3 (1984): 397418; Makari, Peter E., Conflict & Cooperation: Christian-Muslim Relations in Contemporary Egypt (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007); and Philipp, Thomas, “Copts and Other Minorities in the Development of the Egyptian Nation-State,” in Egypt from Monarchy to Republic: A Reassessment of Revolution and Change, ed. Shamir, Shimon (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995). Likewise vital, although examining the period preceding the modern, is Armanios, Febe, Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

Beyond these published sources, there are the following unpublished doctoral dissertations, all of which are essential in a subject area with such a small scholarly literature: Dina el Khawaga, “Le Renouveau Copte: La Communaute Comme Acteur Politique” (PhD dissertation, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, 1993); Elizabeth Oram, “Constructing Modern Copts: The Production of Coptic Christian Identity in Contemporary Egypt” (PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Princeton University, 2004); Anthony Shenoda, “Cultivating Mystery: Miracles and the Coptic Moral Imaginary” (PhD dissertation, Social Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, 2010); Angie Heo, “Technologies of Intercessory Power: Images and Movement among the Coptic Orthodox of Contemporary Egypt” (PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of California at Berkeley, 2008).

3 Scott, Rachel M., The Challenge of Political Islam: Non-Muslims and the Egyptian State (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010).

4 Where possible, the books listed here were searched electronically for references to Copts, and in the absence of electronic versions of the texts, tables of contents and indexes were carefully reviewed: Ali, Kamran Asdar, Planning the Family in Egypt: New Bodies, New Selves (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002); Alexander, Anne, Nasser: His Life and Times (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005); Botman, Selma, Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919–1952 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991); Botman, Selma, Engendering Citizenship in Egypt: The History and Society of the Modern Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Chalcraft, John T., The Striking Cabbies of Cairo and Other Stories: Crafts and Guilds in Egypt, 1863–1914 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005); Danielson, Virginia, The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthūm, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Di-Capua, Yoav, Gatekeepers of the Arab Past: Historians and History Writing in Twentieth-Century Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Fahmy, Khaled, All the Pasha's men: Mehmed Ali, His Army and the Making of Modern Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Fahmy, Khaled, Mehmed Ali: From Ottoman Governor to Ruler of Egypt (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009); Gasper, Michael, The Power of Representation: Publics, Peasants, and Islam in Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009); Gordon, Joel, Nasser's Blessed Movement: Egypt's Free Officers and the July Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Hathaway, Jane, The Politics of Households in Ottoman Egypt: the Rise of the Qazdağlis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Hopkins, Nicholas and Saad, Reem, eds., Upper Egypt: Identity and Change (Cairo: AUC Press, 2004); Jacob, Wilson Chacko, Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870–1940 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Jankowski, James, Egypt's Young Rebels: “Young Egypt” 1933–1952 (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1975); Jankowski, James, Nasser's Egypt, Arab Nationalism, and the United Arab Republic (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002); Kholoussy, Hanan, For Better, for Worse: The Marriage Crisis that Made Modern Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010); Macleod, Arlene Elowe, Accommodating Protest: Working Women, the New Veiling, and Change in Cairo (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); Maghraoui, Abdesalam, Liberalism without Democracy: Nationhood and Citizenship in Egypt, 1922–1936 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006); el-Mahdi, Rabab and Marfleet, Philip, eds., Egypt: The Moment of Change (London: Zed Books, 2009); Mikhail, Alan, Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt: An Environmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Mitchell, Timothy, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991); Moustafa, Tamir, The Struggle for Constitutional Power: Law, Politics, and Economic Development in Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Peterson, Mark Allen, Connected in Cairo: Growing up Cosmopolitan in the Modern Middle East (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011); Podeh, Elie and Winckler, Onn, eds., Rethinking Nasserism: Revolution and Historical Memory in Modern Egypt (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004); Powell, Eve M. Troutt, A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003); Reynolds, Nancy Y., A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid-Marsot, Egypt's Liberal Experiment, 1922–1936 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977); Shakry, Omnia El, The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Shechter, Relli, Smoking, Culture and Economy in the Middle East: The Egyptian Tobacco Market 1850–2000 (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006); Tignor, Robert L., State, Private Enterprise, and Economic Change in Egypt, 1918–1952 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984); Tucker, Judith E., Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Vitalis, Robert, When Capitalists Collide: Business Conflict and the End of Empire in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

5 Pope Shenouda, interview in Al-Musawwar, April 29, 1994, quoted in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Near East and South Asia Daily Report, May 6, 1994, quoted in Human Rights Watch, Egypt: Violations of Freedom of Religious Belief and Expression of the Christian Minority (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1994), 37n15.

6 For a detailed summary of historical census results and non-government estimates of the Coptic population, see table 2.1 in Chitham, E. J., The Coptic Community in Egypt: Spatial and Social Change, University of Durham Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Occasional Papers Series no. 32 (Durham: University of Durham, 1986), 25.

7 Ibid., 29.

8 For a broad discussion of this issue—one which seizes upon the Copts as a case study—refer to Mahmood, Saba, “Religious Freedom, the Minority Question, and Geopolitics in the Middle East,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54, no. 2 (2012): 418–46.

9 The writings of Shea and her colleagues at the Center are exhaustively documented through the links at Hudson Institute, Center for Religious Freedom, accessed September 3, 2014,

10 Jordan Gerstler-Holton, “US Israel Lobby Group Issues Harsh Rhetoric on Treatment of Copts,” Egypt Independent, March 5, 2012,

11 Joel Beinin discusses Ye'or and her impact in The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

12 Ye'or, Bat, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985); Ye'or, , Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002).

13 Fulbright U.S. Student Program, “Egypt: 15 Fulbright Full Grants,” accessed November 5, 2012,

14 For details of the emergence of this Coptic landowning elite, refer to Baer, Gabriel, A History of Landownership in Modern Egypt, 1800–1950 (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 6364.

15 Reid, Donald Malcolm, Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 258–86; Reid, , “Nationalizing the Pharaonic Past: Egyptology, Imperialism, and Egyptian Nationalism, 1922–1952,” in Jankowski, James and Gershoni, Israeli, eds., Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 127–49; Reid, , “Archaeology, Social Reform, and Modern Identity among the Copts, 1854–1952,” in Roussillon, Alain, ed., Entre réforme sociale et mouvement national: Identité et modernisation en Égypte, 1882–1962 (Cairo: CEDEJ, 1995).

16 Heyworth-Dunne, J., “Education in Egypt and the Copts,” Bulletin de la Societe d'Archeologie Copte 6 (1940), 104–05.

17 Seikaly, Samir, “Coptic Communal Reform, 1860–1914,” Middle Eastern Studies 6, no. 3 (1970), 267–68.

18 Ibid., 268.

19 Ibrahim, Copts of Egypt, 117–27.

20 Cromer, Lord, Modern Egypt (London: Macmillan, 1908), 2:211.

21 Butcher, E. L., The Story of the Church of Egypt (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1897), 2:415.

22 Quoted in Behrens-Abouseif, Doris, “The Political Situation of the Copts, 1798–1923,” in Braude, Benjamin and Lewis, Bernard, eds., Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982), 2:195.

23 Quoted in Tignor, Robert L., Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt, 1882–1914 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966), 310.

24 Meinardus, Otto F. A., Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999), 86.

25 According to Bahr, Samirah, “Coptic Congress of Asyut,” in Atiya, Aziz S., ed., The Coptic Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 602–03, 1,150 delegates representing 10,500 Copts participated in the Congress. Such figures were hotly disputed at the time by British officials.

26 Quoted in Mikhail, Kyriakos, Copts and Moslems under British Control: A Collection of Facts and a Résumé of Authoritative Opinions on the Coptic Question (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1911), 36.

27 Carter, B. L., The Copts in Egyptian Politics, 1918–1952 (London: Croon Helm, 1986), 13.

28 Mikhail, Copts and Moslems under British Control, 19.

29 Mellini, Peter, Sir Eldon Gorst: The Overshadowed Proconsul (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1977), 124.

30 Quoted in Tignor, Modernization and British Colonial Rule, 292.

31 Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, 14–15.

32 Ibid., 10.

33 See, for example, Goldschmidt, Arthur, Johnson, Amy J., and Salmoni, Barak A., eds. Re-envisioning Egypt, 1919–1952 (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005). Not one of the papers in this excellent recent volume on the so-called liberal period addresses the sectarian question.

34 Tariq al-Bishri is among the foremost exponents of this position, captured most prominently in his book, al-Muslimūn wa-al-Aqbāt fī iṭār al-jamāʿah al-waṭanīyah [Muslims and Copts in the Framework of the National Community] (Cairo: al-Hayʾah al-Misriyah al-ʿĀmah lil-Kitab, 1980). According to this divide-and-rule narrative, the British had aimed to exploit sectarian division within Egypt to consolidate their authority. Those who endorse this view of Egyptian sectarianism frequently cite the gradual expulsion of Copts from the civil service during the occupation, and their replacement with Syrians and Armenians, as evidence of such a policy. Yet, to focus upon purported British attempts to divide and rule is to conceal the indigenous dynamics of the sectarianism that intermittently came to the fore in Egyptian political life between the 1882 arrival of the British and the 1952 Revolution.

35 Quoted in Wakin, Edward, A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt's Copts (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1963), 17.

36 Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, 60–65.

37 Reid, “Nationalizing the Pharaonic Past.”

38 The best-known discussion of Lutfi and his ideas is in Hourani, Albert, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939 (London: Oxford University Press, 1962). The account that follows draws upon both this and Gershoni, Israel and Jankowski, James P., Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood, 1900–1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

39 Quoted in Hourani, Arabic Thought, 178.

40 Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, 64.

41 Reid, “Nationalizing the Pharaonic Past,” 133–39; Reid, Whose Pharaohs?, 293.

42 Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, 97–98.

43 Quoted in Ghali, Mirrit Boutros, “Egyptian National Unity,” in Atiya, Aziz S., ed., The Coptic Encyclopedia (New York: Macmillan, 1991), 950.

44 Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, 74.

45 Quoted in el-Feki, Moustafa, Copts in Egyptian Politics, 1919–1952 (Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1991), 125.

46 Bowie, Leland, “The Copts, the Wafd, and Religious Issues in Egyptian Politics,” Muslim World 67, no. 2 (1977): 123–24.

47 Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, 220–23.

48 al-Dīn, Khalid Mohyī, Memories of a Revolution: Egypt, 1952 (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1995).

49 al-Hakim, Tawfiq, Return of the Spirit, trans. Hutchins, William Maynard (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012); al-Hakim, , Maze of Justice: Diary of a Country Prosecutor, trans. Eban, Abba (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989).

50 For the relationship between the Free Officers and the Muslim Brotherhood, see Gordon, Nasser's Blessed Movement, particularly 53–54.

51 Quoted in Wakin, A Lonely Minority, 70.

52 Waterbury, John, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983).

53 Law Number 103 of 1961 would empower the president both to appoint and to dismiss the Shaykh of al-Azhar. See Moustafa, Tamir, “Conflict and Cooperation between the State and Religious Institutions in Contemporary Egypt,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 32, no. 1 (2000): 47.

54 Ansari, “Sectarian Conflict in Egypt,” 402.

55 Carter, The Copts in Egyptian Politics, 245n31.

56 Elsasser, Sebastian, The Coptic Question in the Mubarak Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 7981.

57 Meinardus, Otto F. A., Christian Egypt: Faith and Life (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1970), 42.

58 Wakin, A Lonely Minority, 95.

59 Quoted in Wakin, A Lonely Minority, 97.

60 Wakin, A Lonely Minority, 95.

61 Ibid., 96.

62 Ibid., 98–99.

63 Heikal, Mohamed, Autumn of Fury: The Assassination of Sadat (New York: Random House, 1983), 161.

64 I have elected to employ this spelling of the patriarch's name, rather than the proper transliteration, Kīrulus, or the English rendering of the name, Cyril. This transliteration, Kirollos, is pervasive in the literature.

65 Wakin, A Lonely Minority, 44.

66 Ibid., 113.

67 Quoted in Fawzi, Mahmud, al-Baba Kīrulus wa Abd al-Nasir (Cairo: Al-Watan Publishers, 1993) (translations of this source are those of the author).

68 Sedra, Paul, “Class Cleavages and Ethnic Conflict: Coptic Christian Communities in Modern Egyptian Politics,” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations 10, no. 2 (1999).

69 Quoted in Meinardus, Christian Egypt, 49.

70 Heikal, Autumn of Fury, 158.

71 Ansari, “Sectarian Conflict in Egypt,” 399. The president would ultimately grant permits for the construction of only 68 new Coptic churches during the 1960s.

72 Heikal, Autumn of Fury, 157.

73 Quoted in Wakin, A Lonely Minority, 116–17 (alternation in original omitted).

74 Fawzi, al-Baba Kīrulus wa Abd al-Nasir.

75 Quoted in Fawzi, al-Baba Kīrulus wa Abd al-Nasir.

76 Ibid.

77 Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt, 18 January 2014, art. 3.

78 Sedra, “Class Cleavages and Ethnic Conflict,” 227–28.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of Law and Religion
  • ISSN: 0748-0814
  • EISSN: 2163-3088
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-law-and-religion
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed