The role of the Copts in the national movement in Egypt until the 1919 revolution

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

33 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. The Main Influences on the Formation of Coptic Identity Prior to 1879

3. The Reign of Khedive Ismail and the Early National Movement
3.1. Retrospect: Historical Experiences of the Copts with European Occupation and Egyptian Independence
3.2. The Ambiguous Program of Mohammed Abdu: Including and Excluding Copts
3.3. The Role of the Copts in the Urabi Mutiny and the Massacres of Alexandria
3.4. The British Invasion – The Uninvited “Saviours”
3.5. The 2nd National Congress – Coptic Pleads for Pronationalism Instead of Islamism

4. The Copts during the British Occupation until WWI
4.1 Coptic Opportunism and the Islamisation of the National Movement
4.2. Mustafa Kamil: His Attempts to Include Copts in the National Party and the Reasons why he could not Succeed
4.3. The Copts in Egyptian Politics: The Emergence of New Nationalist Parties
4.4. Rising Tensions and Isolation: a Press War, the Assassination of Butrus Ghali and the Coptic Congress in Asyut

5. The First World War: Societal Changes and Conjoint Suffering from the British

6. The New Unity: Copts and Muslims Fight Alongside for an “Egypt for Egyptians”

7. Conclusion


Chart: Integration of the Copts in the National Movement as a result of the 5 factors determining this integration

1. Introduction

During the 1919 revolution, under the slogan „Egypt for Egyptians“, the Copts fought hand in hand with their Muslim brothers for a national independence. The banner of the revolution was a cross within a crescent, the ancient incompatibility of Christianity and Islam was abolished.

Only one decade before this unity seemed impossible, after the assassination of the Copt Prime Minister Butrus Ghali, the mob in the streets of Cairo had been praising the murder with slogans, such as:” Wasrani (the name of the killer), Wasrani, who killed the nasrani (Christian)”. And the Coptic newspaper Al-Watan had stated in 1908 that “The Copts are the true Egyptians and the Islamic conquest of Egypt was oppressive”.[i]

On the other hand the Copts participated in the Urabists´ Congress in 1882 and supported this mutiny, when they signed the petition for Egypt Independence. A mutiny that led to the massacre of Alexandria, a violent street fighting between Muslims and foreign Christians who left many murdered and made thousands of foreign Christians flee the country. An incident that was used by the British forces to occupy Egypt, according to Lloyd[ii] and the official British sources, in order to protect the Christian well-being, without differentiating between foreigners and Copts.

This paper will examine the factors that determined the role of the Copts in the national movement between its emergence in 1879 and the 1919 revolution. These factors are:

1. The degree of benefiting/ suffering from the British policy towards the Copts and whole Egypt
2. The degree of social integration and juridical equality/ exclusion as a distinguished religious community from the (Muslim) majority
3. The degree of Islamisation/ secularisation of the national movement
4. The degree of sectarian strife between Muslims and Copts, mainly incited by the British policy of “divide and rule”.
5. The degree of fear of the Copts to be persecuted or isolated if they don’t participate in the movement and the chances of the movement to succeed.

The role of the Copts in the national movement is as complex and ambiguous as the national movement itself. We have to weight and consider all the factors mentioned above together in order to understand the different roles of the Copts in the movement. We also have to differentiate between Coptic Clerks, fellahin and urban Copts as well as between the Muslim mob and the Muslim leaders of the national movement, latter often influenced by ideas of western enlightenment.

The interests of the British are more obvious; it had to keep the strategically important Suez Canal. But this does not mean that the occupation was only negative for Egypt: England modernised the agriculture, the finance system and the political system – latter only to some degree, too much power in the hands of the people would have endangered the British occupation. Some Egyptians took advantage out of these modernisations; the Copts, educated in many modern languages, became Consular agents and many of them preferred to stay under British occupation because they feared a more liberal and independent Egypt will increase Muslim fundamentalism and endanger their well-being[iii].

The British used the policy of “Divide and rule” in order to weaken the national movement. Prior to World War 1 this policy worked well. The Copts tended to identify as a minority, and demanded minority rights in the Congress of Asyut in 1911. Only World War 1 brought the necessary changes, a social order based on economical instead of religious and ethnical attributes and a disappointment from the British. The general trend to discuss independent states of the former Ottoman Empire contributed also to the development of a joint movement, including Copts as well as Muslims.

But also the wise leader of the Wafd (Arab: delegation), Zaghlul, was an important player in the unification. He had understood that the real reason of the crisis was the fear of the Copts, enhanced by the British policy: “His insight and years of ex­perience made him realize that an even-handed approach would end the crisis and totally eliminate its causes. Thus, he understood that if the majority were to take the initiative in providing a sense of security for the minority, peace between them would ensue; the Copts would no longer fear for themselves, for their property or for the future of their children and there would be no more cause for fanaticism.”[iv]

Before we will examine the different stages of the national movement and the specific factors that influenced and changed the role of the Copts during each period, we will have a brief retrospect of the Coptic history prior to the beginning of the national movement in 1879, in order to understand what motives formed their identity, another important point that influenced their role in the movement.

2. The Main Influences on the Formation of Coptic Identity Prior to 1879:

1. The deep rooted identity as ancient Egyptians[v]. It is important to notice the difference between foreign Christians and Copts, which were two separated churches since the division during the Council of Chalcedon, in the year 451[vi]and to separate Muslim-Christian relations from Muslim-Copt relations.
2. The experiences under the first European and colonialist influence on Egypt: The French occupation (1798-1801). The Copts took advance out of the occupation. They related the ideals of the French revolution and asked from Napoleon to grant them equal rights. After the withdrawal, however, the Copts, accused of collaboration, suffered from Muslim persecutions and learned about the dangers of collaboration with foreign powers that occupied Egypt.
3. The attempts of Muhammed Ali(1805-1848) and his successors to build a modern, contemporary state with the help of European advisors, not preferring but including Copts in his services and in local governates.[vii] During the reign of his successor Muhammed Said in 1855 the jiziya (poll tax)[viii] was abolished[ix] and the Hamayouni Decree of 1856, aiming to support equal rights for the Copts, enlisted them in the military. Furthermore it guaranteed freedom of religion, including no restrictions in church building.[x]
4. This time marked the beginning of a gradually absorption of the Milla identity and societal transformation into a modern society, based on economical classes instead of religious communities. Prior to the middle of the 18th century each community was treated different by the rulers in matters of taxes, rights and army service, the Copts were organised in autonomous Millas headed by a Patriarch. This raís were responsible for dealing with the government and could also demand advantages for the whole community. After being granted equal rights and duties, the Copts suffered alongside with Muslims under governmental measures imposed on the population, such as heavy taxation; hence a united resistance could develop. But the process went on slowly, most of the Copts still preferred to organise as a distinguished minority group. Another fact why Copts preferred this policy were tensions between them and the Muslims, due to the deep rooted distrust among the Muslim population, which had partly developed out of the fact that “Coptic emancipation attempts since the adventures of General Yaqub (who formed the first Coptic army in 1798-1801) were always connected with foreign involvement.”[xi]
5. The geographical factor: Egypt was a flat land without many hills or distant areas. Hence the Copts lived among the Muslims and not separated in one area. They were fellahin, urban people, public workers and clergies. The Islamic restrictions on Dhimmis were less respected in the villages and the difference between Copts in cities and Coptic fellahin were larger than between Coptic and Muslim fellahin. Bemelen reports that a long-time resident European in Egypt claimed, “A Coptic peasant has much less in common with a Copt from the city than he has with a Muslim peasant.” [xii]
6. The civil service as a Coptic monopoly, which was very important to the Copts and endangered by the financial reform of the British even prior to 1879. After the Arab conquest the Copts had managed to hold a good position only because of their abilities in the civil service and good education, they were simply irreplaceable. The Copts had learned very early that it is important for them, as a minority, to ensure this place in the society and the educational reforms during the age of Coptic emancipation under the progressive Patriarch Cyril 4 helped to secure their positions in civil services and Egyptian administration in the 19th century[xiii]

3. The Reign of Khedive Ismail and the Early National Movement

The reign of Khedive Ismael (1863-1879) was described by many Copts as a “Golden Age”[xiv] The national awakening of the Copts, not only religious but also political became obvious in the foundation of the first Coptic newspaper, Al-Watan (The Homeland).[xv] The name of the newspaper “…expresses Coptic legitimacy and activism as Egyptians, not merely as tolerated but benign Dhimmi in a Muslim land.”[xvi] The Milla system became less and less important and Ismail wished to regard Egypt as a part of Europe, which conceded well with Coptic ambitions. Copts faced no obstacles in their favoured area of employment, the civil service. Coptic diplomas were regarded equal to normal diplomas and opened them good job opportunities. By the 1880-ies about 90 percent of state employees were Copts.[xvii] Furthermore, the foundation of the first parliamentary assembly in 1866 marked a new era for the Copts: The election law was not connected to religion and Copts were elected, even in districts with a Muslim majority.

It seems to us that the Copts had no reason to oppose Khedive Ismail and the European influence in Egypt, but a closer look shows us that the European influence, supported by Ismail, also disadvantaged the Copts and the Copts, in 1879, had more reasons to oppose the Khedive and join the national movement than to support him.

Fitzgerald, the first British head of the accounts department, started to reform the archaic Coptic system of keeping state accounts, and replaced Copts with Syrians.[xviii] The Coptic system of keeping state accounts was archaic and they were accused of keeping it so difficult in order to maintain the monopoly as clerks. Al-Watan led a campaign for years against the prejudicial treatment of the “educated sons of the fatherland”.[xix]

But the main reason for Copts, as well as Muslims, to oppose Khedive Ismail and the European influence in Egypt was the unsuccessful financial policy of Ismail, who had to sell the Egyptian shares of the Suez Canal to Britain and drove Egypt into bankruptcy in 1875. In 1878, Egypt, although officially independent, was put under European finance control, supervised by the British. Heavy taxation was imposed on the population, and as a reaction to Ismail´s unsuccessful policy a national movement arose. Ismail reacted on the increased attacks on him with shutting down critical newspapers. The Coptic editor of Al-Watan, was forced to print a notice in his own newspaper of its two weeks suspension and fine for ignoring “times and conditions”. He included a protest against the order along with the notice and appealed to the European ideal of free press. ”Egyptians, he said, were suffering from ignorance and closing down newspapers was rather like denying a sick man his medicine.”[xx]

We can see in this example that the Copts were opposing the policy of Ismail but also appealed to European values and described Egypt as backward. This provides us with the ambiguity towards the national movement, which was partly progressive but partly Islamic in a fundamentalist and backward character. We might suggest that the Islamic tendencies were rather an attempt of the progressive leaders to mobilise the masses and to enjoy support of the system of the ulama with its mosques as means of mass mobilisation. But nevertheless it contained the danger for the Copts to be excluded from or even endangered by a regressive, Islamic movement and to loose the freedom they had gained since Muhammed Ali promoted European freedom and values in Egypt.

It is not only difficult to measure out the advantages and disadvantages of a national revolution for the Copts, because many Copts opposed Ismail; but feared the anti-European, Islamic tendencies in the movement.[xxi] Behrens-Abouseif furthermore claims that “it is not …easy… to analyse the role of the Copts in the nationalist movement…since no Coptic names are mentioned in connection with the Egyptian intelligentsia of that period”[xxii] and although we have protocols of persons arrested during these period, they distinguish only between occupations, but don’t give us evidence if someone was a Copt or a Muslim[xxiii]. We have to gather our information about Coptic participation from other sources: Historical experiences of the Copts with supporting or opposing foreign occupation, reasons for Copts to participate, the character of the movement, the participation of Copts in the meetings and petitions and the examination of the Alexandria riots, which were inspired by the spirit of Jihad, but not directed against Copts.

3.1. Retrospect: Historical Experiences with European Occupation and Egyptian Independence

We will now have a brief look at the Copts´ experiences with independence and Western occupation in history in order to find out what might have made the Copts support or oppose the strive for national independence during 1878-1882.

During the French occupation (1798-1801) the status of the Copts improved. They sent an appeal to Napoleon – attributing to the principles of the French revolution – and the restrictions and discrimination on the Dhimmi were abolished for the first time since the Arab conquest. After the French left, however, Copts were persecuted and killed because they had collaborated with the French. This historical experience made the Copts aware of the danger of collaboration with a foreign (Christian) power and might have been a reason to support the nationalist movement, at least formally, in order to prevent another persecution.

But the Copts had also positive reasons to support an independent Egypt, even with a Muslim majority. They not only regarded themselves as true Egyptians and felt more close to their Muslim brethrens than to foreign Christians, also their former experiences as a Christian minority within an independent Egypt had been positive: During the years 1769 and 1771 Bey al-Kabir had established an independent Egypt, which was described by Copts as a “Golden age”. They gained equal rights, replaced Jews in custom administration after an anti-Jewish campaign led by Ali Bey al-Kabir, and were even preferred to Muslims in the finance sector.

The British, however, had disadvantaged the Copts by replacing them already prior to their occupation 1882 in their traditional monopoly.

3.2. The Ambiguous Program of Mohammed Abdu– Including and Excluding Copts

Behrens-Abouseif claims that Muhammed Abdu´s program “offered a reformed humanistic understanding of Islam”[xxiv], but Cole also states that he used the ulama to mobilise masses and subsequently the ulama declared Jihad against England in 1882. The role of the Copts in this movement could only be a fragile one, as they could not join in a Jihad. The program of Abduh was quite ambiguous. On the one hand he spoke only in the name of Muslims, claimed that the leader of Egypt had to be a Muslim and religion should besides blood and race essential criterions for the leadership. In these speeches he spoke in terms of an Islamic society.[xxv] On the other hand, Abduh explained that his speeches were addressed only to Muslims because they were the majority, and that common historical experience should be the basis of nationalism in spite of religious differences. Behrens-Abouseif concludes that the terms of an Islamic society excluded Copts “since they saw themselves as the true Egyptians undermined by Arab domination”.[xxvi]


[i] Al-Watan, June 15, 1908, cited in: Behrens-Abouseif,D., the Political Situation of Copts, p. 196

[ii] Lloyd,G.A.L., Egypt Since Cromer, p. 36

[iii] Nisan, M., Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression., p. 122


[v] The term “Copt” is the Arab term for Egyptians and originates from the time of the Arab conquest in 642. The term is based on “Dar al-Qibt (Qubt), which means: Land of Copts. The Egypt forerunner term was “House of Ka-of-ptah”.. The Copts, however, call themselves Christians, using the term “Copt” only in order to differentiate between themselves and other Christian churches. The Copts were they majority in Egypt prior to this conquest and date the origins of the Coptic religion into the year 50, when the holy Marcus came to Egypt in order to Christianize the population. Other Coptic sources, however, origin the first contacts of Egypt with the Christians already to the period when the family of Jesus sought refugee in Egypt, and, by that, define Egypt as the real Christian country. This explains the deep rooted pride of Copts as “real Egyptians”. Some authors claim, after studies compared the heads of Egyptians, Arabs and Pharaohs, that even today 90% of the Egyptians are racially non-Arab and successors of the Pharaonic race.

[vi] In the year 395 the Roman Empire was divided between the eastern and western empire. The East, including Egypt, was ruled by Arkadius and Egypt fell under Byzantine rule. During the Byzantine rule Egypt lost its importance, the Byzantines were primarily interested in exploiting the country. In the early Byzantine period the Coptic Church was respected by the emperors and Patriarch Theophilus (385-412) faced no obstacles in the extension of the church. His successor Cyril the first (412-444) became one of the most powerful Patriarchs of Alexandria, but due to his power he started persecuting Jews and pagans, burned down synagogues in whole Egypt or transformed them into churches and expelled most of the Jews out of Egypt (See. Seaver, J.E., The Persecution of the Jews in the Roman Empire (300-428), pp. 14-16). His main intention was probably not the persecution of other religions but the stabilisation of his power within the Christian Churches. During the reign of the successor of Cyril the first, Dioskur the first (444-457) the Churches of Rome and Alexandria began to alienate more and more, finally they divided during the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451. The common explanation for this division is a religious one: A dispute about the nature of Jesus. In Egypt the doctrine of one nature of Jesus, monophysitism, succeeded. The so-called “monophysites”, however, claim they are not monophysites but “miaphysites”, they do not believe in one but two natures of Jesus, but they do not separate these two natures. The term “monophysite” would imply that Jesus had only one nature and is absolutely human and divine in one nature. This Council divided the non-Chalcedonic churches (for example Jacobites, Armenians, Copts, and Ethiopians) from the Chalcedonic churches (the Byzantine official church, which included the later East-Orthodox churches and the later Roman-Catholic church.

But when we look at the events prior to the division, we can see that even in this early age politics was mixed with theology. The people of Egypt wanted to demonstrate opposition to Byzantium, also in a political way. Byzantium did not agree with this division and banished Dioskur the first, the whole argument started to develop more and more political dimensions, a power struggle between Egypt and Byzantium, who wanted to take economical advantage out of the exploitation of Egypt. The tensions grew and in addition to the Egyptian Patriarch, elected by the people, Byzantium set up another Patriarch, the Melcit (Melcit=devoted to the emperor). An Egyptian revolt in 460, the Egyptian Patriarch Timotaus was expelled. During the reign of the Melcit Patriarch Paul von der Thebais (538-539) all Coptic churches were forced to shut down for one year and in the year 610 all Copts were expelled out of Alexandria by the Byzantium.

We see in this example the reason, why Copts felt more Egypt than connected with foreign Christian churches. This two-sided distrust outlasted all centuries. During the invasion of the Persians in 617 they were persecuted, abbeys were burnt, but because of the common enemy the Persians were friendly to the Copts and the Copts soon enjoyed new freedom.

The Copts even assisted the Arabs during the invasion (638-642) against Byzantium, because they found them more tolerant and hoped for an improvement of their situation, once freed from Byzantine rule.

During the Crusader-wars the situation of the Copts from two sides: The crusaders regarded them as “Khawareg” (Outsider) and deprived them from local rights that they had enjoyed under Islamic rule and on the other hand the spirit of Jihad among the Muslims also affected the Copts, so that they were oppressed from both sides.

[vii] Ibrahim,S.E., The Copts of Egypt, p. 11

[viii] Jizya means a poll tax, which Dhimmis, i.e. the non-Muslims natives under Muslim rule had to pay. This jizya symbolised their subjection to Islam; it was a kind of “protection tax”, described in the Pact of Umar. This pact, generally attributed to Umar II (717-740), regulated the status of “People of the Book” – Christians and Jews – that had come under Muslim domination. During the early years of the Arab conquest, the jizya was paid in a ceremony of public humiliation, the Copts received a slap in the face or a blow on the back of the neck when paying the tax. Another tax, imposed on Dhimmis was the kharaj, a tax on non-Muslim land. Heavy taxation made many Copts convert to Islam, especially during the reign of the Mamluks (1250-1517) their number sunk due to conversions to 10-15%. (See: Masriya, Y., A Christian Minority - The Copts in Egypt, pp. 80 ff)

[ix] The jiziya was abolished for the second time, the first time it had been abolished under French rule

[x] This right that lasted for 78 years until it was restricted again in 1934. Regarding the army service we must regard, however, that Copts were not happy to serve in the army and had even been envied by Muslims prior to this decree for being excluded from the army.

[xi] Behrens-Abouseif,D., The Political Situation of the Copts, p. 192

[xii] V.Bemelen,P., (Pseudonym:Boutros), L´Egypte et L´Europe, Leiden, 1881, vol.1, p. 86 , cited in: Ibid, p. 186

[xiii] Cyril 4 set up new schools that taught foreign languages, in 1853 the first Girls School in Egypt was Coptic and Copts also went to missionary schools. So they were able to provide services for the large number of foreigners who settled in Egypt during this period.

[xiv] Tadrus, R., Al-aqbat fi al-qarn al-ishrin, Cairo, 1910-1911, vol.1, p. 171, vol. 2, pp. 52 ff; Mu´tamar Qibti, p. 2 ff; Fahmi Qalini, Mudhakkirat, Cairo, 1932, p. 32, cited in: Ibid, p. 192

[xv]. Founded in 1877 by the Copt Mikhail Abd al-Sayyid, its main aim was to back ecclesiastics in the struggle to limit the say of laymen in church affairs. See: Carter,B.L., The Copts in Egyptian Politics, p. 44

[xvi] Nisan, M., Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression, p. 121

[xvii] Ibid,p.121

[xviii] Behrens-Abouseif, D., The Political Situation of the Copts, pp. 194/195

[xix] Al-Watan, November 30, 1878, cited in: Ibid, p. 194

[xx] Al-Watan, 13 February 22/1879 Safar 1296, cited in: Cole, J.R.I., Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East, p. 227

[xxi] Behrens-Abouseif,D., The Political Situation of the Copts, p. 194

[xxii] Ibid, p. 193

[xxiii] Cole,J.R.I., Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East

[xxiv] Behrens-Abouseif, D., The Political Situation of the Copts, p. 193

[xxv] Ibid, p. 193

[xxvi] Ibid, p. 193

Excerpt out of 33 pages


The role of the Copts in the national movement in Egypt until the 1919 revolution
Ben Gurion University  (Middle East Institute)
Religious and Ethnic Minorities/ Communities in the Modern Middle East
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This term paper describes the role of the Copts as a Christian minority in the national independence movement in Egypt, from 1879 until the 1919 revolution. It raises the question, what factors determined their changing role from a minority, excluded by the Islamistic tendencies of the movement, to their full and equal participation during the 1919 revolution.
Copts, Egypt, Religious, Ethnic, Minorities/, Communities, Modern, Middle, East
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Dipl. Paed. Kathrin Nina Wiedl (Author), 2006, The role of the Copts in the national movement in Egypt until the 1919 revolution, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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