Tensions between Muslims and Copts have been on the rise lately in Egypt. Two incidents in particular have led to a marked deterioration in inter-sectarian relations since May 2010: a legal battle between the Coptic community and the state over whether divorced Coptic men can legally remarry; and the issue of Camillia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest who Muslims claim has converted to Islam and is being held by her family against her will.
The history of Muslim-Copt relations is a long one, as the two have been coexisting in Egypt since the 7th century. The Coptic community welcomed the Arabs, who gave them more religious freedom than they had enjoyed under Byzantine rule. The trope that Copts were forced to convert upon the Arab invasion is an utter falsehood; mass conversions did not occur until much later on (circa the 14th century). Regarding more recent relations, many Egyptian Copts - rightly or wrongly - attribute the rise in sectarian tensions to the growing religious conservatism of the Muslim majority since the 1970s, and the role of the state in fostering that growth.
The two aforementioned incidents have sharpened sectarian tensions. Furthermore, they have exposed the problems underlying the effort to secure rights for religious minorities in the modern secular nation-state.
First, the legal battle between the state and the Coptic community. In May 2010, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the Coptic church could not prevent two divorced Coptic men from legally remarrying. The Coptic church considered this an infringement by the state on their religious rights, since Egyptian law grants the church primacy over personal status affairs. In response to the ruling, Pope Shenoudah III - head of the Coptic church - appealed to President Mubarak. Though the ruling was subsequently overturned, the Coptic community was once again vulnerable to the accusation that they constitute a state within a state.
The second controversy has generated more sectarian tension. After Camillia Shehata, the wife of a Coptic priest, disappeared, rumors spread that she had converted to Islam and was being held against her will by her husband and father as punishment. Mosques became the sites of rallies and demonstrations calling for the liberation of "sister Camillia". Despite the fact that a You-Tube video was posted in which Camillia appeared and explained that she had left her husband due to a marital dispute, and not because she had converted, the demonstrators insisted that the video was a fraud and that she was being held against her will. To add fuel to the fire, the number two in the Coptic church, Bishop Beshoy, gave an interview to al-Masri al-Youm in which he called the Coptic community the original inhabitors of Egypt, and that the Muslims were simply "guests". So much for tactful PR.
The Mubarak regime itself has attracted attention for its inaction in the midst of these tensions. The security forces have not lifted a finger to crack down on any of the public demonstrations, which some say reflects a strategic calculation on the part of the Mubarak regime. For example, Ibrahim Eissa, the prominent regime critic and recently sacked editor of one of Egypt's largest independent newspapers, has underscored the notion that with the prices of vegetables, fruits, and meat having risen by 300%, fomenting identity politics is a great way to distract attention from more substantive issues that transcend sectarian divisions. The title of his editorial says it all: "Muslims, Copts, and Meat."
Perhaps the most interesting thing about these recent episodes of sectarian tension is that many of the demonstrators who oppose the stance of the Coptic church in these issues couch their arguments in the language of civil rights. Though the state sees itself as enforcing religious freedom by permitting the Coptic church to manage personal status issues, these demonstrators charge that by doing so, the state is enabling the church to act in ways that are perceived as "illiberal". Many of them support a unitary civil code, regardless of religious affiliation. Indeed, the concept of a unitary civil code constitutes an integral part of the normative Western conception of the modern, secular nation-state.
But what these advocates often fail to recognize is that unitary civil codes can be illiberal in their own ways. The implementation of them involves drastic transformations in the way adherents of a particular religious tradition relate to that very tradition. In this way, the secularizing project inevitably involves power, coercion, and work on the self. In short, if the Egyptian state's policy of allowing the Coptic church to manage their personal status issues enables "illiberal" traditions, so does the project of enforcing a unitary civil code.
Not surprisingly, advocates for an individual rights-based framework don't get very far when they appeal to the Egyptian government. After all, as far as the NDP is concerned, there's nothing like good old sectarian controversy to take the public's attention off of high food and gas prices, unpopular foreign policies, and an increasingly harsh media crackdown in an election year.