Copts in Lebanon Cast a Wary Glance at Developments in Egypt
Even those of you intimately familiar with the Middle East and its intricate sectarian mosaic might well be surprised to learn that Lebanon, with which you rightly associate with Maronites, Shiites, Sunnis, Antiochian Greek Orthodox, Druzes, Melkite Greek Catholics, and other religious groups, also plays host to a small but vibrant Coptic community. Indeed, Copts—or Egyptian Christians—have maintained a noticeable presence in Lebanon since the 1950s, and over the decades have come to form a distinct community, today numbering around 5,000. In 1972, the first—and to date only—Coptic church was inaugurated, and in 1996 the Copts of Lebanon became the 18th officially recognized sect in the country. Today, plans are underway to build a full-fledged compound for the community in the vicinity of Byblos, the historic Phoenician-era city. The complex will house a monastery, church, meeting hall, and living quarters for Pope Shenouda III when he visits. I recently sat down with members of the country’s diverse Coptic community for discussions on a wide array of subjects, taking advantage of Lebanon’s relatively open atmosphere to press for their opinions on specifically political matters.
The majority of Copts in Lebanon are young men involved in manual labor or other menial work. They are generally referred to as shabab (singular shab), an Arabic word meaning “youth” that is also applied, rather patronizingly, to blue-collar working men of any age. Among the shabab, the main difficulty to be faced in Lebanon is the cost of residence. Unlike the older, more established members of the community, who have attained Lebanese citizenship, the shabab are here temporarily for work. Security guard Magdi, 29, explains that $3,000 for an iqama (residence permit), plus $750 every subsequent year for its renewal, is exorbitant for him and most of his peers. Resultantly, many are here illegally. Ishaq Habachi, a church deacon who also tends to the needs of incarcerated Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian, confirms that most Egyptians behind bars have been jailed for residence-related infractions. Carpenter Shenouda, 27, points out that the residence permit’s priciness extends to the overall cost of living in Lebanon, where prices are much higher than those in neighboring Arab countries.
The next major challenge is the cultural shock experienced by those unfamiliar with the Lebanese way of life. In this context, it should be recalled that most of the working-class Copts who come to Lebanon in search of employment are from rural or semi-rural regions, considered conservative even by Egyptian standards. The cultural atmosphere in Lebanon, very liberal by Arab standards, stands in marked contrast to the mores that hold sway back home. This provokes mixed reactions; though virtually all the shabab express admiration for the freedom so much a part of Lebanon, they sometimes cringe at certain of its manifestations. Wael, 23, believes that the open fraternization of the sexes here is the devil’s work. Fortunately, others are more tolerant. As for their own fraternization, the shabab inform me that Egyptian expatriate workers generally do not socialize much across religious lines, though relations for the most part remain cordial. There is also a consensus that Christian-Muslim relations in Lebanon are more relaxed than those in Egypt. This may seem surprising, given the fact that the Lebanese themselves played no small role in the slaughter that gripped their country for 15 years, but can perhaps be attributed to the “No Winner, No Loser” understanding of past conflicts ingrained in the collective Lebanese conscience.
For all their thoughts on Lebanon, the shabab’s gaze rarely strays from Egypt, where their hearts are permanently moored. Most of the shabab come from Asyut province, with some from al-Minya, and their stories of home are replete with the incidents of discrimination that constitute an unfortunate part of life for most Christians in rural Upper Egypt. Rampant sectarianism (the brunt of which will always be borne by the minority), periodic flare-ups over the construction of churches, coerced conversions of young Christian women, and the extraction of a jizya (head tax) in the guise of “gifts” from Christian villagers, fill their personal experiences. Discrimination in the army, which is supposed to be a national institution free of sectarianism, poses a real problem. Yusuf, who faced taunts, harassment, and active proselytism throughout his two-year stint, says, “It was the worst experience I ever had. I wanted to die every minute.” Saad, from al-Minya, and Mirza, from Asyut, both relate stories of being declared ineligible, along with other Christians, for positions of responsibility in the army, through a process of segregation undertaken ostensibly for purely technical reasons. Says Saad:
We were told to stand aside because we all fell within a certain height range. Then, none of us was assigned to an artillery unit or any similar position of even minor responsibility. When we started speaking to each other, we realized that we were all Christian, every one of us, and concluded that we had been told to stand aside because our identity cards indicated our religious affiliation.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of this sort of behavior. Hani, a quiet and reflective 29-year-old from Asyut who works as a house-painter, insists that the problem is one of education, and that this is why the public education system in Egypt (which, in addition to many other deficiencies, does not include classes on Coptic history) needs to be overhauled. “Ideas imbibed at a young age resist change.” This reminds me of an example Edward Bibawy made concerning imagery in schoolchildren’s textbooks:
When I was a kid in school, the family depicted in my schoolbook was of the generic sort. Yet today, the father is depicted with a beard, and the mother and sister are veiled. One specific kind of family is held aloft as the exemplar of Egyptian identity, with others falling by the wayside.
Dr. Suleiman, a Lebanese citizen who has lived and worked as a gynecologist in Lebanon since the 1970s, blames Egyptian governmental oppression first and foremost for the terrorism that has plagued Egypt over the years, maintaining that acts of anti-Christian violence are directed against the state, and not Christians themselves. Mr. Bibawy also is convinced that “the nature of the Egyptian is fundamentally decent” and points to foreign interference, such as British support for the Muslim Brotherhood in its early days, and Saudi influence on several groups in recent decades, for the spread of an intolerant brand of Islam. Maybe this is what accounts for the stories I heard from the shabab about many of their Muslim compatriots considering them najes, or unclean. This stereotype has made it difficult for Christians to open and sustain restaurants and food stands in Muslim-majority rural regions, where such ideas hold sway.
All this has perhaps understandably led to an exaggerated cynicism, and no small measure of paranoia. Yusuf (33) and Mirza (27), for example, believe that the Egyptian intelligence services have a file on every Copt (!) And when I ask the shabab whether they think the sort of discrimination so common in largely rural areas also prevails in cities like Cairo and Alexandria, they nod their assent, with many pointing to the recent sectarian clashes in the latter as an example of simmering tensions. Still, when I press Yusuf, “Are there no liberal or secular Muslims in Egypt?” he concedes that such people exist, but that they can only be found in places like Cairo, not in the rural villages, where religion pervades all aspects of life. And Hani and Saad admit that in many instances the law is clear, and does not make any distinction between Muslims and Christians, but that it is not properly enforced. Indeed, the shabab as well as the community elders often point to discrimination that stems from cultural bias, not law, as being a major problem. Examples include the reluctance of medical schools to admit Copts into the department of gynecology (because of the widespread Muslim opinion that a Christian man should not see a Muslim woman naked), the difficulty experienced by Copts wishing to join the bar and become lawyers, and rural courts’ continued practice of considering a Copt’s testimony less reliable than that of a Muslim.
Ultimately, the shabab are frustrated with a political system that has failed them. Many express dissatisfaction with the Church’s interference in political matters as a complicating factor (though I notice that these same critics are openly deferential around Coptic clergy), and oppose the Pope’s isolation of Copts who opposed Church writ by campaigning against President Mubarak’s re-election. The prevailing mood seems to be that a Copt who enters Egyptian politics faces three daunting challenges: a) the government, hardly predisposed toward greater Coptic political participation, b) the Islamic parties, which often oppose Coptic aspirations outright, and c) the Coptic Church, which feels it has the right to dictate the politics of its flock. Together, these challenges prove to be virtually insurmountable.
Much of the problem would seem to stem from the state dealing with Copts exclusively through the church, and thinking that problems can be resolved through occasionally granting concessions. Yet “Coptic grievances are not confined to church-building,” says Mirza, whose calls for social and political freedoms are echoed by the likes of Saad, who advocates the secularization of the state. Many of the shabab follow the activities of Coptic exiles, like former Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates Michael Meunier, who recently toured both Egypt and Lebanon. The shabab also speak highly of Saadeddin Ibrahim and other Egyptian Muslim intellectuals who advocate full equality for Copts. All the shabab insist that there is no inherent enmity between them and their Muslim counterparts, only that many of the latter tend to feel that in demanding their rights, Copts somehow seek to violate Muslims’ rights.
In a modest apartment on the edge of Christian east Beirut’s Achrafieh district, I am greeted by arguably the most fascinating member of this small but strikingly diverse community. Edward Bibawy, longtime activist for Coptic rights and founder of the short-lived Coptic Democratic Party in the 1980s, ushers me into his small but comfortable living room. Standing over six feet, Mr. Bibawy towers over most of his compatriots, but his tanned complexion—even before the distinctive lilt of his Arabic—marks him as unmistakably Egyptian. Mr. Bibawy, whom I first met after Mass a couple of Sundays earlier, prefers formal attire, aptly complemented by proper textbook Arabic. Balding, and with a slight tremor, he remains quite handsome, and readily flashes an enchanting smile at various stages of two lengthy conversations.
Born in Cairo in 1943, Mr. Bibawy has lived in Lebanon since he was thirty. He came here with his wife for their honeymoon, but wound up staying and raising a family. So far, pretty straightforward stuff. Even when you add his job, employee at a publishing firm, to his profile, you’ve still got a pretty non-descript picture. It is the man’s political activities that distinguish him from fellow Egyptian expatriates, even those who espouse views identical to his. While virtually all my interviewees complain about the discrimination they and their coreligionists face in Egypt, none has actually tried to do anything about ameliorating their situation. Some will as a matter of course refrain from even broaching Coptic grievances when in Egypt or speaking with Egyptian Muslim friends or colleagues. How they expect things to change remains a mystery to me. Mr. Bibawy, on the other hand, took the opposite road, establishing a Lebanon-based political party advocating the secularization of the Egyptian state and the granting of equal rights to its Coptic citizenry, including the promulgation of a single law governing the construction of both Muslim and Christian houses of worship.
This last point has long been one of the fundamental demands made by Copts of all political stripes. When Mr. Bibawy reads the list of ten legal conditions that must be met in order for a church to be constructed, his countenance changes from calm to clearly aggrieved. Stipulations that the church not be built near mosques, Muslim cemeteries, Muslim-populated areas, bridges of the Nile, irrigation canals, and railroad tracks, and the outright prohibition on the construction of a new church if the petitioning sect already has one in the vicinity, leave him angry and hurt. “Is this how one treats one’s national partner?” he asks indignantly. Later, when I speak to the shabab, I am confronted with more than one example of such restrictions. R., 27, hails from the Markaz al-Qusiyya area in Asyut. His town, al-Habalsa, is home to approximately 100,000 people, of whom about 80,000 are Muslim. The Muslim majority has several mosques, yet the Christian minority, 20,000 strong, cannot obtain permission to build a single church.
Adamantly opposed to Coptic separatism, which he calls “crazy,” and even regional autonomy for Copts, Mr. Bibawy has in the past broken with associates over such issues. Indeed, he left the Near East Committee, a primarily Lebanese Christian organization he helped found, when it began espousing separatist views. Mr. Bibawy insists that all he wants is equality between Muslims and Christians, which includes religious and educational freedom, and television and radio space for both groups. “And these are Egyptian, not strictly Coptic, demands,” he adds. This was the platform of the Coptic Democratic Party in the 1980s. Never a mass-based organization, the CDP attracted a handful of intellectuals in the diaspora, as well as sympathizers in Egypt, and attempted to put out a corpus of literature on the subject of Coptic rights. The party eventually folded, yet its individual members continue to suggest ways of redressing the imbalance in Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt. What Mr. Bibawy himself proposes as a means of resolving the chronic under-representation of Copts at all levels of Egyptian government is striking, both for its simplicity and the fact that mainstream Egyptian reformists have begun to voice similar if not identical ideas.
To begin with, a census should be conducted, “so that we know just how many Copts there really are in Egypt.” That way, the issue will cease to be part of a political tug-of-war. “For example,” he continues:
President Anwar Sadat belittled Coptic demands by claiming that there were no more than 2 million Copts in Egypt. Yet recently, presidential advisor Osama al-Baz defended the Egyptian government’s refusal to license the Muslim Brotherhood as a political party, pointing out that such an action would require licensing political parties representing Copts, of whom there are 9 million in Egypt!
Once the census is conducted, all political parties could be required by law to nominate a percentage of Copts equal to their proportion in the overall population. “This way, there would be no need for a parliamentary quota.”
When it comes to Arab history and culture, Edward Bibawy’s opinions tend to be more nuanced than those of Western-based Coptic activists, with whom he has often disagreed, and whose views have hardened in exile. Perhaps surprisingly, he extols Arab nationalism as a noble idea, pointing out that its initial proponents were almost entirely Christian, and maintaining that he opposes only its Islamized variant. Still, I note that Mr. Bibawy not only considers all Egyptians ethnic Copts (a position shared by many Christian and even some Muslim Egyptians), but points to its retention of 5,000 Coptic terms as proof of the uniqueness of specifically Egyptian Arabic. Mr. Bibawy also has conflicted feelings toward Presidents Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat; despite blaming the former for setting in motion much of what Copts today suffer from, and the latter for Islamizing Egypt and blatantly discriminating against Copts, he also takes pride in their achievements. An Egyptian nationalist at heart, Edward Bibawy is quick to mention Nasser’s formidable presence on the world stage, and Sadat’s bravery in concluding a peace agreement with Israel, which he says would have spared the Arabs and Palestinians further defeat, had they supported it. Yet he also proudly cites the Church’s prohibition on the faithful visiting Israeli-occupied Jerusalem as proof of Coptic loyalty to the Arab cause.
Another revealing paradox is that the staunchly secular Bibawy delivers his lectures on Coptic history in the church; so long as Eastern identity continues to revolve around religion, secularists will have to defer to its prominent social role. Edward Bibawy knows this only too well, for despite his party’s firm demarcation of the border between religion and politics, the CDP’s decision to dissolve itself was based in part on the Coptic Church’s strenuous opposition to its activities. Mr. Bibawy remains coy about what specific mistakes he may have made during his active political phase, but concedes that tactical errors have been part of his experience, and that he continues to engage in an ongoing process of self-criticism.
Community members’ reactions to last year’s parliamentary elections prove to be mixed, though the overall impression comes across as decidedly negative. Edward Bibawy dismisses them unequivocally as a “sham” without the makings of genuine democracy. George Ramses, a construction manager, adopts a more cautiously optimistic tone, holding out hope that the elections constitute a “first step” on the road to democracy, but pointing out that democratic culture will require time and effort to be properly nurtured. Dr. Suleiman properly laments the fact that the ruling National Democratic Party nominated but 2 Copts for the 444 seats being contested in the recent parliamentary elections. Yet he cannot take much solace in the Muslim Brotherhood’s nomination of a grand total of 1 Copt out of about 150 candidates, which Edward Bibawy correctly cites as flying in the face of the Brotherhood’s stated aim of reaching out to Copts.
Mirza convincingly claims that a system whereby voters select an entire electoral list put out by one or another party is preferable to Copts, because unlike the current situation, whereby each seat is individually contested, Copts have a better chance of getting elected. If a popular political party can be convinced to include Coptic contestants on its list, then they will be automatically elected along with everyone else on the ticket. Indeed, Mirza tells me that even in those instances in which the current system could conceivably be beneficial to Copts, harassment and intimidation ensure that it isn’t! Because Copts comprise one-third of the population in Mirza’s home electoral district, voting en bloc would guarantee that a single Coptic contestant would win a plurality of votes, beating out the remaining Muslim contestants. As a result, aspiring Coptic politicians have been hounded out of local politics, and a Muslim candidate is invariably elected to “represent” them.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s surge in the polls has understandably sparked a degree of anxiety among many Copts. Though some, like George Ramses, figure that nothing much has changed, many see a qualitative shift toward Islamization. The shabab don’t buy statements by the likes of high-ranking Brotherhood official Abdul Monem Abu’l-Futtouh, who claims that in raising the slogan “Islam is the Solution,” the Brothers mean Islam as an inclusive civilization, and not merely the Islamic religion, to which many Egyptians do not adhere. On the contrary, most believe that the Brotherhood is engaging in a tactical ploy, and that slogans like “Islam is the Solution” are in fact part of the problem. Yusuf fears that were the Brotherhood to triumph more spectacularly in subsequent elections, they would take the country back to the days of Amr Ibn al-Aas, the Arab Muslim conqueror accused even by Muslim sources of having treated the Copts unfairly, and would ban the construction of new churches and impose the hijab on all women. Mirza, who is convinced that “if there were true democracy in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood would win,” despairs that the best outcome Copts can hope for is inherited succession, whereby President Mubarak’s son Gamal would eventually assume the helm of the country. To listen to the shabab, one gets the impression that Copts, like many in the Arab world, find themselves in a vise. They can either continue to support a dictatorial regime merely because it is quasi-secular, or they can gamble on democracy, which could conceivably bring in its wake an Islamic regime.
I come away from these discussions frustrated with the pitiful state of democracy, freedom, and human rights in Egypt, and the Middle East as a whole. Without an immutable set of human rights laws to which all political parties are legally required to adhere, democracy in the Arab world is doomed to fail, for the entire process will be reduced to a means by which undemocratic Islamist parties legally gain power. Democracy without provisions for the protection of women and minorities has the real potential to lead to the tyranny of the majority. Only when this realization takes hold will we be able to enjoy the fruits of democracy and equality. Yet despite my frustration at the overall situation, I am heartened by the reasoned and cogent arguments presented by Edward Bibawy, Mirza, Yusuf, Saad, and others for improving the condition of Copts in Egypt. Indeed, I hope that this heralds the beginning of a period of more active involvement in the struggle for Coptic equality, an issue that has for too long been neglected, not least by the majority of Copts themselves. I part with my interviewees by urging them to go ahead with tentative plans for a church-hosted community meeting to which the Egyptian ambassador to Lebanon be invited, and in which the plight of the Copts of Egypt would be discussed at length, along with the needs of Egyptian Coptic citizens living in Lebanon.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and freelance reviewer based in Beirut.
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