BRITISH OCCUPATION OF EGYPT
When the British occupied Egypt in 1882, the Copts were not playing any active role in Egyptian political life. The liberal wing of the nationalist movement, which developed under the influence of Christian Syrian immigrants, did not include Coptic names. The presence of Copts in the Egyptian army was too recent to be of political relevance. Although European sources of the time tend to identify xenophobic excesses that accompanied the revolt of ‘Urabi with purely fanatic persecution of Christians, there is no evidence that the Copts were singled out during the riots of 1882.
The Coptic historian MIKHA’IL SHARUBIM (1900) reports on the persecutions of the nasara, or Christians, mentioning Syrians, Greeks, and British victims but no Copts in this context. E. L. Butcher (1897), who echoes the British attitude, seeing in the riots of 1882 an argument to occupy Egypt in order to secure European interests, writes that possible harm could have come to the Copts had the British not intervened at the right time by occupying the country.
In fact, there was no real antagonism between the Copts and the ‘Urabi movement, which was directed first against Turkish and Circassian elements in the Egyptian army and later against European intervention in Egyptian politics. It is even reported that some Copts supported ‘Urabi. ‘Urabi, however, could not stop fanatic elements from being involved in his revolt, a factor that cost him the sympathy of Christian Syrians who first supported him.
The Coptic patriarch and other Coptic notables were among the signers of a petition addressed to Khedive Tawfiq against his decision to dismiss ‘Urabi. This may have been a mere formality, but the mediating role played by BOUTROS GHALI during the ‘Urabi revolt shows that the Copts played an increasingly important role in government service.
Like the French before them, the British did not seek to favor the Copts at the expense of the Muslim majority. They preferred to rely on other Christian minorities of Egypt. Lord Cromer, the British high commissioner, held no higher opinion of the Copts than of their Muslim countrymen. He did not trust them and considered them to be opportunists. Cromer considered the Christian Syrians more modern, more emancipated, and closer to European mentality. They, with the Armenians, were in his opinion the elite of the Orient. The first impact of the British occupation on the Copts was therefore negative.
In the course of modernization measures undertaken by the British, they saw themselves losing their traditional hold on the civil service. Their contempt grew as they were replaced by Syrians and Europeans. On the other hand, the Copts were accumulating wealth in land and investments under British rule. According to Coptic sources, at the turn of the century, they owned one-fifth of the agricultural land of Egypt. Like the rest of the Egyptian land aristocracy, they came to enjoy great economic advantage under British rule.
The Coptic press, al-Watan (founded in 1877) and Misr (founded in 1895), strongly supported the British occupation in spite of their constant criticism about unfair treatment of the British toward the Copts in the civil service. The British tried to diminish the traditional Coptic monopoly on certain posts in order to cultivate an image of fairness toward the Muslim majority.
In 1896 a Coptic delegation presented a list of claims to the government and to Lord Cromer, asking for equal treatment with the Muslims in the civil service; for Sunday to be the holiday for the courts; for catechism for Copts in public schools; and for more opportunities to occupy high government posts.
The Coptic press stood in total opposition to the National party of Mustafa Kamil, although the party included Copts. Misr organized a petition signed by members of the Coptic community to protest any change in the political situation that could introduce new changes. This petition was met with opposition from nationalist Copts and supporters of the National party. Proposals to found a Coptic party were also made, but they did not prevail against secular tendencies within the Coptic community.
A crisis between the Coptic and the Nationalist press burst out after al-Watan, in its apologia for the British occupation of Egypt, described the Muslim conquest of Egypt as being as oppressive as any other conquest. The chief editor of al-Liwa’, the paper of the National party, reacted with a highly insulting and provocative article against the Copts. Because the author of the article, ‘Abd al- ‘Aziz Jawish, was of Tunisian origin, the Copts were confirmed in their animosity toward pan-Islam.
For many modern Egyptian historians, the conflict between the Copts and Muslims at the beginning of the twentieth century was a result of the British policy of divide and rule. The nomination of Boutros Ghali as prime minister was due to his efficiency in representing the British as well as the khedive’s interests, both of which were supported by many Muslims as well. The assassination of Boutros Ghali by a Muslim partisan of the National party brought Coptic-Muslim relations to a new crisis. Boutros Ghali was accused by the Copts of not having addressed himself to Coptic interests while he was in government.
In Asyut, the city with the largest concentration of Copts in Egypt, Coptic notables decided to hold a congress to stress again their demands to the government. The government feared trouble in Asyut and asked Patriarch CYRIL V to intervene and propose another location, but neither the government nor the patriarch himself managed to sway the Copts. They held a well-attended congress in March 1911, where they demanded a change in the election law according to what they felt was inadequate representation, and they requested the making of Sunday a holiday for the Copts. In his report of 1911, the British High Commissionar Eldon Gorst heavily criticized the Coptic congress, which he said was organized by a minority of rich land owners.
He emphasized the great financial power of the Copts as relatively greater than that of their Muslim countrymen and at the same time made the Coptic moneylenders responsible for the misery of the poor peasants. According to him, more Coptic influence, as demanded, would make the Copts more unpopular. He accused the Copts of interpreting British impartiality between Copts and Muslims as prejudicial to the Copts.
According to official statistics of the time, the Copts held 69 percent of the posts in the ministry of interior, 44 percent in the ministry of post and railway, 30 percent in the ministry of justice, and 14 percent in the ministry of culture. According to Coptic estimates, they controlled 19 percent of the Egyptian economy while they made up only 7 percent of the population.
After the Coptic congress, public opinion turned against the Copts. The European press of Egypt, as well as part of the British press, supported the Coptic claims. From the Muslim point of view, the Coptic support of the British and the success of the Protestant missionary activity among the Copts since the British occupation gave enough reason for mistrusting the Copts; and even though official British policy did not favor the Copts, the missions created a common ground between British and Copts, encouraging the Copts in anti-Islamic tendencies.
The missionary activity also played an important role in the relations between the community and its patriarch and clergy. The patriarch, Cyril V, saw foreign interference as the reason for the troubles he was having with the community as it asked for lay representation in the Community Council for the rule of Coptic affairs. This conflict went as far as requesting removal of the patriarch from the chairmanship of the council in 1893 and the substitution of another church prelate in that position. In this conflict, the British sympathized with the reformers. In 1911 the Egyptian Congress of Heliopolis was held as a reaction to the Coptic Congress and to answer the Coptic demands. It was supported by Khedive ‘Abbas II and Mustafa Riyad, the prime minister who had always been neutral in Coptic-Muslim conflicts. The National party rejected this congress as it had rejected the Coptic Congress, regarding it as a threat to national unity. Thus, they were standing on the same side as the Copts, though for different reasons.
The British attitude toward Coptic claims and their role in the conflict between clergy and community as well as the increasing Coptic conversions to Protestantism led al-Watan, which supported the patriarch, gradually to change its attitude toward the British.
The formation of a new liberal and secular trend in Egyptian nationalism slowly opened the door for the integration of the Copts into the national movement. The newspaper al-Jaridah became the nucleus for the Ummah Party, one of whose members was SA‘D ZAGHLUL. Al-Jaridah expressed a nationalism based on an Egyptian identity separate from pan-Islam, and managed to win Coptic sympathies. When the 1919 revolution against the British took place, it included all classes and groups of Egyptians, regardless of religion. One may say that the main achievement of this revolution was the total national unity of Copts and Muslims around Sa‘d Zaghlul and his Wafd party. The emblem of this revolution was, in fact, a crescent enclosing a cross.
The nomination of a Copt, Yusuf Wahbah, as prime minister during the boycott of the Milner Commission’s visit to Egypt in 1919 was condemned by the Coptic community as a British intrigue to embarrass the Muslims, who would fear being accused of religious fanaticism if they opposed the Wahbah government.
Sa‘d Zaghlul succeeded in attracting Coptic enthusiasm for his Wafd. Three Copts accompanied him to Paris, and Copts as well as Muslims were exiled and put in jail during the Wafd struggle for independence.
One year before the British proclaimed Egypt a British protectorate in 1913, a new law for the Legislative Assembly reserved four seats among seventeen for the Copts, among other ethnic and professional groups. The Copts were thus represented as a minority, but not as part of the professional groups of engineers or merchants. This law reflected British views and traded concessions granted to European states for the protection of foreigners in Egypt with the privilege to protect the minorities of Egypt.
Lord Cromer regarded Egypt as a conglomeration of different groups without a national bond or a national identity and felt that the representative bodies should be constituted accordingly. In their declaration of 1922 of Egyptian independence, the British reserved for themselves four clauses, some of which granted them the right to protect foreigners and minorities in Egypt. These clauses were rejected by the National party as well as the Wafd party.
A lively debate on this subject took place in the entire Egyptian press, the Copts themselves being of divided opinion. A proportional representation would bar foreign interference in Egyptian affairs. Since Islam would be the state religion, a legally secured representation would make up for inconveniences caused by this fact. Since several European countries were adopting such systems to secure the rights of their minorities, this measure would not be exceptional.
This idea was rejected by most political as well as intellectual personalities. Sa‘d Zaghlul felt that within a parliament only political arguments should rule. Most of the Copts also rejected special treatment for the Copts as being incompatible with the sovereignty of the state. No separate interests should exist between Copts and Muslims. The result of the first parliamentary elections proved better than the law. The number of elected Coptic deputies was higher than a special status would have allowed. Independent Egypt’s first cabinet under the leadership of Sa‘d Zaghlul included two Copts and a Jew. The head of the chamber of deputies was also a Copt.
- Behrens-Abouseif, D. Die Kopten in der ägyptischen Gesellschaft. Freiburg im Breisgau, 1972.
- Blunt, W. S. Secret History of the English Occupation of Egypt. London, 1907.
- Butcher, E. L. The Story of the Church of Egypt. London, 1897. Cromer, Lord. Modern Egypt. London, 1908.
- Mikhail, K. Copts and Muslims Under British Control. London, 1911.
- Muhammad Sayyid Kilani. al-Adab al-Qibti Qadiman wa Hadithan. Cairo, 1962.
- Strothman, Rudolf. Die koptische Kirche in der Neuzeit. Tübingen, 1932.