Ibrahim, V: The Copts of Egypt…

March 13th, 2011

Vivian Ibrahim, The Copts of Egypt: Challenges of Modernisation and Identity

series: Library of Modern Middle East Studies

I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd: I B Tauris, 2010

ISBN: 9781848854994

The Copts of Egypt, who consist of 10-15% of the population, have traditionally been viewed as a ‘beleaguered and persecuted minority’. Using newly discovered Coptic archival sources Vivian Ibrahim presents a fresh and vivid alternative reading of the community during the twentieth century. Avoiding the established portrayal of a monolithic entity headed by the Coptic Pope, Ibrahim examines the multifaceted dimensions of the Coptic community, assessing Coptic-State relations on one hand and Coptic intra-communal dimensions on the other.

Examining the impact of the British Occupation of Egypt on the making of new national identities, she explores the emergence of a new politically active Coptic class; highlighting popular Coptic grassroots mobilisation during the 1919 revolution through the case-study of the Coptic priest Qommus Sergius. She discusses the centrality of the Copt and Wafdist, Makram Ebeid, on constitutional politics, and his role as a whistleblower during the ‘Black Book Affair’. Breaking with the portrayal of a defenceless community, Ibrahim also reveals a strong Coptic response to the emergence and threats of Political Islam through the press. She presents and analyses for the first time, the unique satirical ‘Ode to the Fezzed Shaykh’, aimed at Muslim Brotherhood leader Hassan al-Banna.

In The Copts of Egypt, Ibrahim also reveals fierce factionalism within the Coptic community in its struggle for modernisation. Examining mass corruption in monasteries and in the run-up to papal election campaigns, she analyses the ways in which the Church used the Egyptian State to bolster its claim to political as well as religious representation over the community. Through the establishment of benevolent and philanthropic societies, Ibrahim argues that Coptic youths were amongst the first to negotiate a role for themselves in post-revolutionary Egypt. Adopting President Nasser’s revolutionary rhetoric of tathir, or cleansing, Ibrahim examines how a group of Coptic youths abducted their Pope and forced through their own agenda of religious and political reform.

It has been reviewed in:
Vivian Ibrahim writes about the Copts of Egypt with clarity. Her book provides a welcome and eloquent insight into the complexity and controversial dynamics of Egyptian inter-communal relations.
– H.E. Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Former Secretary-General of the United Nations (1992-1997)
This is an important and timely book which challenges the standard portrayal of identity politics in the modern history of Egypt and of the Arab Middle East. By bringing together a multiplicity of Coptic voices, groups and tensions Vivian Ibrahim skillfully deconstructs and questions a number of assumptions on the Copts including the “persecuted minority” discourse and essentialist representation of the community as a unified religious entity. She does so meticulously through a diligent mining of an impressive range of Arabic and English sources which allow the author to unveil unexplored facets of community state/relations and, most originally, the changing socio-economic, institutional and ideological foundations which underscored the evolution of a fractured Coptic polity. This book is community history at its best, an essential critical read for those interested in Egyptian nation and state building as well as in the history of Middle Eastern Christians.
– Nelida Fuccaro, Reader in the Modern History of the Arab Middle East, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London

Submission: Vivian Ibrahim (Author), 13 March 2011

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