“The End of an Era”: A Genealogical Analysis of “Sectarianism” in Egypt and the Memory of Pope Shenouda III

  pope3_03262012Pope Shenouda III’s passing comes at a moment of political uncertainty for a new Egypt and its Coptic communities. In Western media, fears of “sectarian violence” and potential “religious discrimination” have been expressed in numerous articles focusing on his passing as the next stage of a timeless religious conflict that will erupt between the Muslim and Coptic communities in Egypt. But, is “sectarianism” in Egypt indeed timeless and inevitable?

“Sectarianism” in Egypt and the narrative associated with it has been normalized, naturalized, and constantly reified as something inevitable. This “sectarian” discourse and knowledge is perpetuated through the plethora of mainstream Western media stories addressing the passing of Pope Shenouda III and the “troubled” future of Coptic peoples.

In an article published by the New York Times entitled, “Coptic Pope’s Death Adds Fears in Egypt’s Time of Transition,” it is implied through interviews with Copts that Pope Shenouda III was the only barrier against a flood of “sectarian” violence and an increase in marginalization in the event of the establishment of an Islamist government. With his passing, the fear of “sectarianism” in Egypt has arisen as a means to describe an “unknown” political future for the role of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Kareem Fahim, from the New York Times, writes:

The grief [of Pope Shenouda III’s passing] seemed only to compound the long-held complaints about discrimination which since Mr. Mubarak’s departure have been replaced by deeper fears that Islamist parties could further marginalize the minority Christian population if they try to fashion Egypt into a more observant Muslim state.

“Fears,” “marginalize,” and “minority,” these terms, which are used to perpetuate this discourse, are key. Similar language has been used by other news sites to present the Pope as the sole protector against this alleged/claimed “sectarian” element in Egypt. This perspective is exemplified in the Christian Science Monitor’s article, “Egypt’s Coptic Pope: How He Negotiated Wwaves of Sectarianism”:

Shenouda began his tenure as leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church four decades ago at a time of rising sectarianism that made Egyptian Christians feel under threat. By the time his patriarchy ended this weekend, the Christian community was once again feeling vulnerable.

The question would then be: why does it appear that “sectarian” discourse is perpetuated throughout media on the Middle East? Is this “sectarian” element truly inevitable/timeless and occurs in waves?

Whatever the answer may be, the Western press continues to perpetuate this “sectarian” discourse as inevitable/timeless. Time’s piece on the Pope’s passing, “The Death of the Coptic Pope: What Next for Egypt’s Beleaguered Christians?” by Abigail Hauslohner again depicts the passing of the Pope as an omen for increased violence towards Egypt’s Copts, and she writes:

Incidents of sectarian violence — typically over issues of conversion, interreligious romances and the construction of churches — have increased dramatically since the uprising, sparked in part by the rise of extremist Islamist factions and the security vacuum left by Mubarak’s retreating security forces.

These gross oversimplifications of the current Egyptian political situation distract from the commemoration of a man of importance to millions of people in Egypt, both Coptic and Muslim, and abroad. In this time of uncertainty for the Church hierarchy and the Coptic communities, a genealogy of how the Church became the central political agent of the Coptic communities over the past half century is crucial to understanding the current situation.


The “millet partnership” between President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Pope Kyrollos was formed following the 1952 revolution.

A Genealogy of “Sectarian” Discourse in Egypt since 1952

During the consolidation process of the Coptic Church during the 20th century, Coptic marginalization intensified due to the rise of the modern Egyptian state. Following the 1952 Revolution Al-Azhar and Church structures were incorporated into the state, and the Coptic Cathedral was built in party with state assistance. The laity, or elite Copts, had a central distrust of the clergy over Church finances and the building of structures, like the Cathedral. Thus, in empowering the Church, President Gamal Abdel Nasser disregarded the Coptic laity and other predominantly Coptic political entities, like the Wafd party, that financially supported the Church. In marginalizing the laity, Nasser was marginalizing forces associated with the pre-1952 regime.

Under Nasser and Pope Kyrollos (Cyril VI), the “sectarian” narrative focusing on Coptic-Muslim tensions became more pronounced. Over the past sixty years, the ghettoization, or the process by which the Coptic communities of Egypt were forced out of mainstream society culturally and politically, prove that the discourse on a united Egypt is misrepresentative.

Upon Pope Kyrollos’ ascension to the Patriarchate in 1959, he saw the Church as weak both institutionally and politically. As a result, he believed it was necessary to establish the Coptic Church within an institutional state framework, thereby enabling it to act as the sole political representative of the Coptic community. With Nasser’s support, Pope Kyrollos created new institutions to foster legitimacy among its Coptic constituency. As Paul Sedra, Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University has noted in his seminal article “Class Cleavages and Ethnic Conflict: Coptic Christian communities in modern Egyptian politics”:

The Patriarch [Kyrollos] had developed a ‘millet partnership’ with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, under which he presented concerns of the community directly to the President and promoted loyalty to the regime among the Copts. In return, Nasser ensured the security of the community and the status of the Patriarch as the Copts’ legitimate representation and spokesperson.1

Thus, the “millet partnership” between the state and the Coptic Orthodox Church was constructed and cemented in post-1952 revolution Egypt which set the groundwork for Coptic “minority” status and accusations of institutionalized “sectarianism.”

The Coptic communities experienced an ideological and political shift after the passing of Pope Kyrollos in 1971. The election of Pope Shenouda III that same year signaled a change in Church hierarchy. Previously, the Church–dominated by a conservative clergy–avoided public confrontation with the state; however, the election of Bishop Shenouda as the 117th Patriarch marked the temporary end of this “millet partnership.”

Initially, Pope Shenouda III refused to pledge his loyalty to the regime. As President Anwar al-Sadat revived Islam as political discourse in Egypt, “in an effort to destroy the roots of Nasserism both in government and among Egyptian communities, [Pope] Shenouda insisted upon the preservation of Copts’ rights of citizenship.”2 The new Church leadership, well educated in the established religious institutions and more politicized than their predecessors, had a different vision of their role in political life. As political representation declined under the repression of the Nasserism, the Church leadership thought to voice the Copts’ political demands.

Between 1971 and 1981, Egypt underwent serious economic, political, and social changes under Sadat’s regime. Due to these economic and social frustrations, “sectarian” strife appeared to increase. Incidents of religious discrimination and violence, such as those that occurred in the Delta village of Khanka in 1972, continued and led to heated rhetoric between President Sadat and Pope Shenouda between 1980 and 1981.

In order to re-assert state control over the Egyptian population, on September 4, 1981, Sadat ordered the arrest of over 1,500 individuals–including 22 priests and bishops–from different religious and political groups which the government considered a threat. The following day, Sadat announced the cancellation of the Presidential Decree of 1971, which appointed Pope Shenouda III and replaced him with a committee to carry out papal duties.

While under house arrest at the Monastery of Saint Bishoy, Pope Shenouda reconsidered his approach to leadership of the Coptic community. Following his release, he attempted to cooperate with President Hosni Mubarak’s government. In doing so, as Sedra has described, Pope Shenouda embraced the rhetoric of national unity, decided to negotiate with the regime privately, avoided public confrontation, and consolidated his power within the Church.3 The return of the “millet partnership” widened the “sectarian” divide in Egypt throughout the next three decades until the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.


Following events at Maspero, Coptic protesters demand justice from SCAF.

The Revolution, the Coptic Church, and a Future Without Pope Shenouda III

Until the beginning of the revolution in 2011, the perceived threat to the Coptic communities became another government justification for a strong police state. For over half of a century, the political mobilization of Coptic Christians has been stagnant, with the central political and religious authority belonging to the Church and the Pope under the “millet partnership.” In the past decade, this trend slowly began to change. Growing Coptic dissent seen in political movements such as Kefaya–a grassroots coalition that drew its support across Egypt’s political spectrum–and protests against discrimination and violence, it is fair to say, were and continue to be a motivation for the revolution. As Adel Iskandar, an Adjunct Instructor at Georgetown University asserted, “Coptic activism was actually the impetus for confrontation between protesters and police,” referring to the events that occurred in the fall of 2010 in the Giza district of Omraniya4

Despite the Church’s indifference to a government decision to freeze the transformation of a Coptic community center to a church based on, of course, a building permit violation, thousands of Coptic protesters took to the streets of Giza in the fall of 2010 demanding recourse for the decision. Not surprisingly, Pope Shenouda urged priests to prohibit non-religious gatherings, protests, or conferences-without Church permission-inside or near churches and auxiliary buildings. The clashes in Omraniya left dozens injured and one killed, leading many to focus on this incident as a prime example of the “sectarian” narrative. However, the saliency of this “sectarian” narrative does not completely hold true as the clashes in Omraniya contributed to the momentum that led to mass protests against government injustices, which began in January of 2011.

This defiance is exemplified, with tragic consequences, in the incident that occurred at Maspero, the state TV headquarters, in October of 2011 where 24 lost their lives during a protest against the demolition of a church in Aswan, Upper Egypt. Moreover, as Paul Sedra recently noted in his article, “The Church, Maspero and the Future of the Coptic Community,” Maspero was more than just a protest against a church demolition, it was a site of defiance against the government and the Church hierarchy’s cooperation with the regime.

As a result, the Coptic Church could potentially lose its legitimacy as a political actor. The “millet partnership” has become bankrupt, and many Copts, especially the youth, view the Church as failing to represent their new political ideals. After the Maspero massacre, many Egyptian organizations and political parties began to openly criticize the now ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). However, the Church has yet to openly criticize SCAF’s role in the violence at Maspero or any of its actions against Egyptians, Coptic and Muslim alike.

What will happen after the passing of a great religious figure of the Church and a leading political figure for many Copts? In addition to demands for the dismantlement of the existing regime, Coptic protesters have something to fight for within their own communities: political autonomy from the Church and an end to the “millet partnership” and the “sectarian” discourse associated with it. The narratives used by the government and the Church that they protect the Copts from the threat posed by radical Islamists have been a farce, and Coptic communities must now forge their own political path by ensuring equal political and social rights in the new Egypt.

The Coptic protesters are demanding freedom for all Egyptians, and after Maspero, it is even clearer that Coptic communities will lead the chants for the fall of the military regime and an end to the “sectarian” discourse.

With the passing of Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic communities are in a state of mourning for a man that led them, both politically and religiously, for over four decades. Despite this, many Copts in a post-January 25th Egypt realize that the Church cannot remain their sole political actor. The mission to end the “millet partnership” between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Egyptian state is daunting, yet hopeful. In a new Egypt, Coptic communities will indeed forge their own political destinies outside of the confines of Church hierarchy.

  •  Paul Sedra. “Class Cleavages and Ethnic Conflict: Coptic Christian Communities in Modern Egyptian Politics,” 225.
  •  Ibid, 226.
  •  Ibid.
  •  Adel Iskandar. “The Way Forward for the Copts.” Telephone interview with author. November 04, 2011.

CandaceLukasikCandace B. Lukasik, co-founder of Baraza and Middle East coordinator, is currently a Master’s student in the Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies (MESAAS) Department. Her current work examines the interplay between religious and secular discourses and Coptic ethno-nationalism in Egypt after 2010.