Minorities in Egypt


By Edmond Y. Azadian

I am back in Cairo, Egypt, in this most turbulent of times. This is a city which I called home for almost a decade when I was invited to serve as the editor of the daily Arev, established in 1915 by its founding editor, Vahan Tekeyan, who is generally celebrated among Armenians worldwide as a poet.

My term as editor coincided with the Gamal Abdel Nasser era, when patriotic fervor was in abundance, balanced with the scarcity of commodities and food staples. At that time, contrary to outside adverse publicity, the government treated the Armenians and minorities with kid gloves, as long as our community observed a cool distance in its relations with Soviet Armenia. Visiting dignitaries, artists, clergy and writers were under vigilant scrutiny, but welcomed anyway.

Armenian churches, schools, cultural centers and newspapers were tolerated and well-protected, sometimes with that official “affection” bordering on a “bear-hug.”

Upper middle class Armenians suffered across the nation as a consequence of the Arab socialist experiment, which some people took erroneously as directed only at minorities.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Egyptian-Armenian community was 45,000-strong, only to be reduced to less than 5,000 today.

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Armenian contributions to Egypt are one of the best-kept secrets of Egyptian history. During the construction and the opening of the Suez Canal, Nubar Pasha tried to secure the majority of the Canal shares for the Egyptians; that was considered a challenge to the British colonial authorities who were vying for the full control of the waterway.

Nubar Pasha also instituted a fairer legal system for Egyptian citizens by establishing mixed tribunals. Until that period, each foreign consulate ran its own court system and any foreign national who had a case against an Egyptian citizen would present his case to their respective consulate and it was not difficult to predict the verdict of that particular court.

There were other prominent Armenians who contributed significantly to the education, industry, agriculture and economy of Egypt.

Boghos Nubar Pasha, son of Nubar Pasha, was the director of the railway system and in 1906 took the initiative to found the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), whose real estate holdings and endowments today date back to that era.

One would be remiss not to refer to a very interesting comparison with Armenia: a communist revolution took place in Armenia and all the facilities built by Boghos Nubar Pasha were taken over and the compound which was named after his family, Nubarashen, was re-christened as Sovetashen. Independent Armenia restored the name, but ironically that compound is mostly known for an infamous jail nearby.

Similarly, a socialist revolution took place in Egypt but the name of Nubar Street in Cairo was kept as well as the agricultural region called Nubaria, which has kept its name.

This comparison demonstrates that the Armenians in Armenia tried to be the more Catholic than the Pope.

Today Egypt is undergoing another phase of its history, with the coming to power of Muslim Brotherhood. There is an unsettled air in the atmosphere. Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt with an iron fist, at the same time providing security and stability. Today insecurity reigns and fluid political trends are rampant.

The Muslim Brothers’ leadership, which mostly inhabited the jails before, has returned to power with a vengeance. President Mohammed Morsi, who is considered a moderate by Middle Eastern standards, is trying to keep the balance between the secularists and the Salafists who are on the extremist right of the political spectrum. Both the Muslim Brothers and the Salafists are eager to rule the country under Sharia law, but their interpretations of that law differ widely.

Ever since I left Cairo, a number of magnificent mosques have been built with their minarets pointing to the sky, but unsure if they lead the believers to heaven or the Middle Ages. The veil and the chador — once ridiculed by Nasser himself — are common in Cairo. To find out the degree of fanaticism of any male believer one has only to measure the length of his beard; Salafists almost always wear a longer beard (most of the time without a mustache) and the Muslim Brothers shorter ones.

Images aside, President Morsi has taken his role very seriously. Following the abrogation of parliament by the Constitutional Court, he has decided to rule by decrees until a new constitution is adopted, touching off a firestorm of controversy. The legal system is paralyzed and the courts have no jurisdiction at this time. Society has been polarized. Tahrir Square has changed its complexion. This time around, the people who have taken to the streets are the judges, the intellectuals, the professionals and overall, the secularists.

Minorities have thrown in their lots with the secularists. The Muslim religion in Egypt and in the Middle East, for that matter, does not have the Christian equivalent in the West; it is a way of life, it is a political philosophy and an ideology. There is no dividing line between religious and lay leaders.

Under the previous regime, the Muslim Brothers provided social services to the poor for many years. They helped the underprivileged with food, water, shelter, schooling and clothes, and they made inroads in society on the grassroots level, as their leaders languished in jail cells. Today, they have shaken off their shackles and are now trying to force their sociopolitical philosophy upon the general populace. However, there is a world of difference between running a government and distributing charity without the prerequisites of statesmanship.

Not only the secularists but also a good segment of Islamists are alarmed by the political direction that the country is veering toward. But since the army and the Interior Ministry have taken a neutral stance, Morsi’s government is plowing ahead, as far as one can see.

The average man on the street believes that Europe and the US are behind the “Arab Spring” or the violent changes in the Middle Eastern countries, and consequently, they have been asking why Washington has let this change happen. Why did they support the Muslim Brothers’ ascension to power?

The answer is very simple. At the onset of the ascension to power by the Muslim Brothers, the US Secretary of State rushed to Cairo to take the pulse of the new leaders. Subsequently, she gave a green light upon being assured that Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel will remain untouched and that the new leaders will play the tune of the US in Middle Eastern policies.

After those guarantees, they were allowed to treat their people any way they liked and the West euphemistically called the game “democracy in progress.”

Mr. Morsi, in his turn, made good on his pledge by announcing in Tehran, during his first foreign trip, that President Assad of Syria must go, gleefully cheered by Washington and the EU. Egypt also continued its stronghold on the Rafah passage, to choke Palestinians in the gulag of Gaza, a favorite stand in the eyes of the Israeli government.

After Mr. Morsi brokered a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, the Hamas leadership switched allegiances from Tehran to Cairo, very much in line with the Western policy of isolating Iran in the region.

Therefore, Mr. Morsi earned an international license to chart his own domestic policy, undisturbed by outside interference and allegations of mismanagement.

To say that there is uncertainty in Egypt is an understatement; not only the civic institutions are under assault but the future of minorities is in limbo.

Unless a rapid slide towards Sharia is stopped, Egypt may become another fundamentalist country like Iran, serving as a counterweight to the latter, which adheres to the Shia sect of Islam. For a while, Turkey claimed the leadership of the Sunni branch in the Middle East and it looked as if an undercurrent of competition may be triggered between the two nations. However, for now, there seems to be a sharing of leadership, much to the long-term detriment of Armenia.

The 10-million strong Coptic community — the descendants of the indigenous Egyptians — has been reduced to an oppressed minority. The bombing of churches, which coincided with the rise of the Brothers, has intimidated that ethnic group, whose members all seem to be headed to the West. The recently-elected Coptic Pope Tawadros II has reflected that sentiment of desperation in his inaugural sermon, by stating that during his tenure, he will avoid being involved in politics.

Armenians have been reduced to a negligible minority. Their institutions have historically been well-funded as the community is overall wealthy, often with their children studying abroad. That trend also seems to indicate where the community is heading.

Incidentally, no other Armenian-Diasporan community, besides India, has similarly solid financial foundations, as the founders of Kalousdian School in 1854, Agha Garabed Kalusdian, bequeathed endowment funds and large holdings of real estate to perpetuate Armenian schools and the church. The community is more affluent than it can manage. Recently, the Kalousdian school, which boasted 850 students in the 1950s, lost most of its student population and joined the Nubarian School, to educate a student body of 145. The Boghosian School in Alexandria has 27 students. The Diocesan headquarters, the cultural clubs, newspaper offices have been maintained magnificently to cater to a dwindling population.

Is the Egyptian-Armenian community on its way to emulating the Armenian community of India?

We hope not. But, everything depends on the political furor of the country.

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