COPTS IN MODERN EGYPT
Following the withdrawal of the French in 1801, Copts fell on bad times, as they were adherents of the same religion as the departing enemy. Conditions improved four years later with the emergence of MUHAMMAD ‘ALI in 1805, to whom the Copts proved indispensable in carrying out his reform plans, thus keeping up the Islamic administrative tradition since the beginning of the early Middle Ages. Several eminent Copts stood in his favor for rendering him services in finance and administration. The most notable among them was al-Mu‘allim GHALI, who carried out a survey of the whole country and divided it into provinces, each with its own capital and smaller subdivisions for the purpose of efficient revenue assessment.
It is also believed that Ghali suggested to Muhammad ‘Ali the idea of linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea by means of a canal, a project to be financed principally by Egyptian capital. Yet, as in the case of a few other people close to the viceroy, he fell victim to a campaign of intrigue that resulted in Muhammad ‘Ali’s twice exiling him and twice reinstating him, until he was eventually killed in 1821. His son BASILIUS succeeded him as auditor general of accounts, and had the title of bey conferred upon him, thus becoming the first Copt to achieve this position.
BUTRUS AGHA ARMANIYUS, who had previously been governor of the province of Jirja in Upper Egypt during the French occupation, was appointed governor of Wadi Bardis and given a free hand to restore law and order. Faraj Agha and Makram Agha were assigned similar offices in Fashn and Itfih, respectively. As a result of the Copts being more qualified, many distinguished themselves as administrators, engineers, surveyors, accountants, scribes, and translators. In recognition of their services and cooperation in implementing reform projects, Muhammad ‘Ali issued various decrees authorizing Copts to have new churches built and older ones restored.
‘Abbas I, however, was not as tolerantly or favorably disposed toward the Copts as his father. Upon his accession, many Copts lost their positions of influence. It is believed that at one time he considered the idea of deporting all Copts to the Sudan, and asked the then shaykh of Al-Azhar, Ibrahim al-BAJURI, to prepare the necessary legal opinion, but the latter declined.
The reign of ‘Abbas, however, witnessed the start of the infiltration of various missionary movements into Egypt. Roman Catholic societies established a foothold in Jirja, and Protestant groups in Bani Suef, Minya, and Asyut.
Under Sa‘id, the Copts fared better. In 1855 they were given equal rights of citizenship with the abolition of the poll tax imposed on Christians and Jews ever since the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT in 640. In 1856 they were conscripted to the army for the first time. When Sa‘id decided to purge the army of Turkish and other foreign elements, the Copts were quick to respond and enlist.
With his European education and upbringing, Khedive ISMA‘IL followed a totally uninhibited policy of goodwill and tolerance. His 1866 decree gave generous financial help to Coptic schools, and when he invited heads of state to the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869, he impressed Empress Eugenie by taking her on a round of visits to wealthy Coptic families in Upper Egypt. He also gave 1,500 feddans of land as a religious endowment to the Copts, and an annual grant of £200 in acknowledgment of their services in the education of both Coptic and Muslim children. Copts continued to hold important executive, legislative, and judiciary positions, and when the parliament was first established Isma‘il prescribed the inclusion of a Coptic member among the representatives of each province.
The Copts did not deny ‘Urabi their moral or material support in his struggle to free the country from the oppressive rule of both the Ottoman sultan and Khedive Tawfiq. “Under ‘Urabi a Copt was promoted to be sub-Minister of Justice, a post which carried with it the superintendence of the Qadi’s courts and the necessary minor appointments for the courts” (Leeder, 1914).
With the British occupation in 1882 the number of Copts in senior official posts was significantly diminished as a result of the enforcement of a so-called policy of British justice that was aimed at redressing the balance in favor of the majority, and giving the impression that such was the will of the Muslim government in power. In due time this gave rise to a situation where Copts and Muslims were mutually suspicious.
During the reign of Muhammad ‘Ali, domestic and foreign trade was almost completely in the hands of Copts and Maronite Syrians, and when various services were franchised, Copts became agents for foreign commercial firms. Some also acted as consuls on behalf of various countries. Thus many Copts showed great entrepreneurial skill and made immense fortunes. At the turn of the century, there were many Coptic landowners in the provinces of Minufiyyah, Daqahliyyah, and Gharbiyyah, and by mid-century their numbers had greatly increased in Upper Egypt where a large section of the population were Copts.
When Nasser introduced his socialist measures in the early 1960s, many enterprises exclusively or largely owned by Copts were nationalized, especially those connected with local transport, as were investments in major banks and companies. Many thousands of feddans were expropriated under agrarian reform laws, not only from wealthy Coptic families but also from endowments belonging to the patriarchate and the monasteries. All dispossessed land was subdivided among peasants, but few Copts benefited from that action.
The number of Copts in government posts steadily decreased in the second half of the twentieth century due to a dramatic increase in the Muslim population. At the beginning of the century, Copts occupied 40 percent of the government posts. In 1927 they occupied 9 percent. At present it is taken for granted that there are certain leadership and government positions to which Copts are not entitled.
[See also: Muhammad ‘Ali Dynasty.]
- Baer, G. A History of Landownership in Modern Egypt, p. 63. London, 1914.
- Cromer, Lord. Modern Egypt, Vol. 2, pp. 208-212. London, 1908. Leeder, G. Modern Sons of the Pharaohs, pp. 332-34. London, 1914.
- Wakin, Edward. A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt’s Copts. New York, 1963.