A Coptic Revival: Egypt’s Christian Community and Consequences of the Arab Spring

By: Kate Moran On an unassuming morning in December 2010, Muhammad Bouazizi, a young man in the provincial Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, set off to work as he had done every other morning for as long as he could remember. Several hours later, a policewoman confiscated his fruit and vegetable cart. Instead of accepting a 10-dinar fine from Muhammad, the policewoman allegedly slapped the young man, spat on his face and cursed his dead father. As the sole breadwinner of his family of eight, Muhammad sought help from the provincial headquarters. When municipality officials refused to see him, Muhammad left. His next decision would prove to radically and irrevocably change the future of the Arab world forever. At 11:30 a.m., less than an hour after his initial confrontation with the policewoman, Muhammad returned to the provincial headquarters, and standing in front of the entrance, set himself on fire.

His refusal to accept humiliation at the hands of his own government would eventually lead to the ousting of Tunisia’s long-standing dictator, Ben Ali. Although Muhammad died shortly after his defiant act, the implications of his bravery set the stage for a full-scale revolution that would prove over the coming months to shake the Middle East to its very core. Bouazizi, a man of little education and even less renown, is credited with sparking the fire of the Arab Spring, leading to uprisings in countries as varied as Egypt, Libya, Syria, and even Iran. Even now, many resistance movements continue. In May 2012, Egypt witnessed its second-ever presidential election. And though not all uprisings have been met with equal success, the citizens of countries spanning the region from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east are making their voices heard.

I, like so many others, watched anxiously and with bated breath as events in the Middle East unfolded. Yet there was rarely ever mention of minority communities in the Arab world. They have, by and large, remained absent from the narrative. What have been the implications of the Arab Spring for the Arab world’s Christian communities, specifically, Copts in Egypt? This article will attempt to answer those questions.

The Copts have a long and rich history in Egypt. They are the largest, as well as the oldest, minority community in the now Islamic state, comprising 5 to 8 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million.[1] Though the Copts have seen their fair share of marginalization and persecution over the centuries, they have continued to maintain a strong presence. Yet, one unforeseen consequence of the recent events of the Arab Spring has been an increase in levels of insecurity within the Middle Eastern Christian community, especially Egyptian Copts.[2] The Anglican Church has declared the “Arab Spring” a “Christian Winter.”[3]

During the early stages of the protests in Cairo, a sense of solidarity pervaded Muslim-Christian relations. Many believed this was an indication of lasting change[4], but an attack on a Coptic church in October 2011 had many questioning that reasoning. In the power vacuum that existed following the ousting of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the rise of radical groups caused many Copts to fear the establishment of an Islamic state and the subsequent implementation of Shari’a law. As a result of this security absence, Copts faced increasing violence and sectarian tension.

Mohammed Morsi’s ascendancy to the presidency in June 2012 further concerned Copts and their international allies. As a former leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, many feared that Morsi’s policies would be discriminatory toward Christians, if not downright oppressive. Surprisingly, they have proved to be just the opposite. Pope Tawadros II, reigning patriarch of the Egyptian Coptic Church, believes that the Arab Spring and the subsequent election of Morsi have paved the way for an increased public role for the Coptic community.[5] The Tahrir Square protests and eventual ousting of Mubarak have served to embolden the Copts, many of whom have sought to act beyond the Church’s traditional restraints and instead participate more directly in the nation's politics to demand rights, better representation and freedom of worship.[6]

As a Christian and as one who deeply desires to see peace come to the Middle East, the increasing ability of Copts to play a role in the civic life of Egypt is encouraging. To be sure, Egypt’s richness lies in its history as a melting pot for various religious traditions. It would be folly on the part of any government to impose a singular religion or way of life. The position of Christians in the Arab world is indeed precarious. Numbers of Christians have dwindled to near-extinction in countries like Iraq and Syria.

Yet, Muhammad Bouazizi’s story proves that change is not only possible, but it is inevitable. The peoples have coexisted peacefully for more than 1,000 years. Christians, Muslims, and Jews all play a crucial role in the creation and perpetuation of culture in the Middle East. It is equally crucial for us to do everything in our power to combat negative stereotypes, to avoid generalizations, and to reach out to others with understanding and a desire to understand. I have hope for the Middle East. I have hope for the Coptic community, and I have hope for Egypt’s current presidential administration. The Arab Spring isn’t over; the revolution is just beginning.

[1] “Christians Pick New Pope—” CNN. November 4, 2012. Accessed November 7, 2012.

[2] “Middle East: ‘Arab Spring’ or ‘Christian Winter’?” Christian-Muslim News Digest (2011):  4.18. Accessed November 4, 2012.

[3] “Arab Spring or Christian Winter?”

[4] “Arab Spring or Christian Winter?”

[5] El Deeb, Sarah. “Egypt's New Pope Opposes Religious Constitution.” Associated Press. November 5, 2012. Accessed November 7, 2012.

[6]El Deeb, “New Pope”

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