Egyptian National Unity


The great achievement of the 1919 national uprising against British Occupation. It was the highest expression of harmony and understanding between Muslims and Christians in Egypt. Expressions of this harmony were and varied. Their best exemplification could be found in the speeches given by Muslim shaykhs in the Coptic churches and by Coptic in mosques.

This national understanding was more since it had been preceded eight years earlier by sharp exchanges between Muslims and Copts, after the murder of GHALI. The agitation culminated in the holding of the COPTIC CONGRESS OF ASYUT in 1911, and the EGYPTIAN CONFERENCE OF HELIOPOLIS at which the demands and the allegations of the Coptic Congress were refuted.

The main body responsible for this new understanding was the Wafd party, which, from its formation in 1919, upheld a firm policy of cooperation between Muslims and Christians. When George Khayyat asked SA‘D ZAGHLUL, the founder of the Wafd, what the future of the Copts would be after independence, the answer was “their status will be our status, they will have the same rights and the same duties, with no difference between any of us, save in personal achievement.”

The Wafd also had a marked secular tendency and this helped to reassure the Copts on their position in the party. The success of the Wafd exceeded the hopes of its founders. All sections of the population, landowners, peasants, and townspeople, flocked to its membership. The Wafd adopted a strong nationalist attitude. This attracted the enmity of the king, who did not wish his own authority to be weakened by too strong a political party, and of the British, who had their own reasons for not having an Egyptian party with strong popular backing.

Thus the Wafd, in spite of being the largest and most popular party, was in power relatively few years from 1919 to 1952, as it was constantly fought by the other parties. In their fight for power, the other POLITICAL PARTIES did pay lip service to national unity, but they were often activated by different interests and paid less attention to the cause of national unity.

An important issue was that of minority rights. This question had already been broached when the Legislative Assembly was established, but it was again discussed at much greater length in the Constitution Committee in 1923. This was because the British Declaration of 28 February 1922 had mentioned minority protection as one of the reserved points. In order to invalidate the British argument for minority protection, the prime minister at the time, Husayn Rushdi, tried to influence the Constitution Committee to decide for minority representation in both chambers of Parliament.

Minority protection was opposed by the Wafd party and the National party. The Constitution Committee finally decided against minority representation, after protracted discussion.

Despite all subsequent events, the Copts as a whole have not regretted this decision. They stand steadfastly for a society where religion is a matter between man and his God. They understand that minority rights protection could have branded them as not being an integral part of the national community.

The call for Egyptian national unity is still at the forefront of all official declarations, but it is now being somewhat obscured by various extremist movements, the call for Islamic legislation to be applied in Egypt, the increase of Islamic pressure against the Christian minority, and the violence perpetrated by Islamic pressure groups. These last deserve special mention, because they are directed not only against Christians but also against the religious establishment, which they accuse of laxity and indifference in their call for Islamic legislation. In fact, it could be said that they are directed less against Christians than against their own establishment. Christian rights are always carefully recognized, in words if not always in deeds.

A to the cause of unity among Egyptians was the alliance of the Wafd with the Moslem Brotherhood during the electoral campaign for the People’s Assembly in 1984. What Christians fear is once again to become second-class citizens in a country ruled by law, as they had been ever since the of Egypt up to the enlightened nineteenth-century rule of Muhammad ‘Ali and his successors.

The example of the Sudan, where law is stringently applied in the North and where it has caused a renewal of the civil war in the South, does not augur well for the future.

Early in 1985, President Numayri of Sudan was overthrown and a new regime came into power. Apart from the Brotherhood, most of Sudan’s political parties demanded the abolition of law. This had a strong influence in Egypt, where the People’s Assembly disregarded the previous elaborate codification of and decided that only provisions in direct contradiction to the Qur’an would be amended. For several months following, the daily and weekly papers were full of calls for avoiding haste in applying Islamic law and for preserving good understanding between Muslims and Christians, as spelled out in the Constitution of 1923 and subsequent revisions.