Shedding light on modern Egypt. From politics to Coptics

A Short History of Modern Egypt, by Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot. New York: Cambridge University Press. 160 pp. $9.95, paper. The Difficult Years of Survival, by Fouad Guirguis. New York: The Vintage Press, 150 pp. $7.95 ``A Short History of Modern Egypt'' gives an informative and vivid account of a nation diminished by hundreds of years of foreign occupation, from the time of the Arab conquests in the 7th century until the 1952 military coup instigated by Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, an Egyptian historian who teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles, asserts in her book that because of these continual foreign occupations, the Egyptian people have been alienated from their rulers. Even after the 1952 revolution -- which heralded the first native Egyptian rule in the country for 2,000 years -- the people continued to feel alienated from their government. In her opinion, the recent regimes of Egypt have perpetuated the authoritarian and repressive rule that characterized the previous foreign rulers of the country. She asserts that, even when political parties were permitted during the regimes of Nasser and Anwar Sadat, their freedom ``was restricted lest they vote for a change of ruler or regime.'' As for Hosni Mubarak, Professor Marsot contends that only time can tell whether his regime will allow Egyptians to have the confidence in their government that they have historically been deprived of.

In her concisely written but thoroughly compelling account, Marsot traces the historical enslavement, exploitation, and depletion of the resources of the country by the various rulers who were foreign both in language and ethnicity. The book vividly recounts the historical resilience of a people crippled by foreign occupiers, but who have identified themselves since Pharaonic times as the ``inhabitants of a fixed and unchanging entity known as Egypt.''

The book is divided into seven chapters, which usher in modern Egyptian history in the 7th century AD with the Islamic conquest of Egypt by Amr Ibr al-Ass, the Arab conqueror. At that time the natives of Egypt included Monophysite Christians known as Copts, who differed from the Byzantines in their definition of the nature of Christ and, therefore, were persecuted by the Byzantine rulers of Egypt at the time. The Copts allied themselves with their Islamic conquerors, and by AD 641 Egypt had become part of a Muslim empire.

Marsot provides a very brief though illuminating account of the Turkish occupation of Egypt in the 9th century, which was followed by the Mamelukes in the 13th century and by the Ottoman Turks from the 16th century to modern times. In the Nasser years -- for the first time in more than 2,000 years -- Egypt was finally ruled by an Egyptian. Yet, she criticizes him for fragmenting society with his police state -- ``Nasser even spied on his associates.'' Marsot asserts that Nasser did not wish to strike Israel in 1967, but wished to bluff his way out of a military confrontation.

The author is equally as critical of Sadat as she is of Nasser, asserting that both rulers ``ruled autocratically, and then only with the support of a governing elite.'' Neither military dictator allowed real opposition and freedom of political expression, so the alienation between the ruler and the ruled persisted. She also writes that Camp David was disapproved of by many people in Egypt who perceived it as a separate peace with Israel; the peace treaty with Israel fanned anti-Western feelings and gave rise to the opposition of the fundamentalist groups that finally assassinated Sadat.

Significantly, Marsot states that one of the major ironies of history is that the Egyptian people ``who are not ashamed of expressing their emotions in public wept not a tear for the departure of their leader.'' The delirium that greeted the death of Nasser, ``who had lost wars and allowed his country to become invaded by a foreign occupier (Israel) was matched by indifference for the death of a leader who brought peace to the country and organized the conquered territories.'' This statement only seems to suggest that the modern Egyptians still remain alienated from their leaders.

The Coptic Christians of Egypt are a little-known entity. They constitute about a third of Egypt's population and pride themselves on being the descendants of the ancient Egyptians. Their conversion to Christianity in AD 60 was at the hands of St. Mark, the apostle. The Coptic church provided the theological realm with the oldest monastic orders of the world, but a controversy from within the universal church about the nature of Christ resulted in the excommunication of the Copts during the Council of Chalcedon (449-451). The Copts were accused of harboring heretical views about the person of Christ; the Coptic church was labeled as heretical and its dogma shrouded in a veil of Eutychianism.

In his short history of the Coptic church, ``The Difficult Years of Survival,'' Fouad Guirguis, an expatriate Copt and a professor of biochemistry at McGill University, has painstakingly chronicled the history of this schism. He reexamines the minutes and proceedings of the religious councils that resulted in the excommunication of the Coptic church, and which were followed by 200 years of violent persecution of Copts by the Roman Catholic archbishops appointed by various Roman emperors.

Dr. Guirguis's 70-page scholarly account is ostensibly meant to reexamine this schism. Praise must be rendered to the historical detail (an impressive appendix of theological letters and documents from the two councils) of this labor of love, but this does not veil the real purpose of the book: to compare the past with the present persecution of the Copts. According to Guirguis, the Copts have been discriminated against at almost ``every level of daily life by the different governments of 1952 coup d''etat colonels'' -- in other words, by Nasser and particularly by Sadat, who persecuted and jailed the Coptic patriarch, Pope Shenouadah III, in 1980. This, according to the historian, was an attempt to isolate the Copts from their spiritual leader, who symbolized their sense of continuity from ancient Egypt and even their national identity. Sadat is severely and persistently criticized in this informative account.

The ``severity'' with which the Copts were persecuted by the Chalcedonians, and later by the Arabs and Turks (one Turkish occupier of Egypt even forced the Copts to wear heavy wooden crosses to identify them), resulted, according to Guirguis, in a ``Coptic paradox'' that manifested itself in a massive conversion to Islam and in ``a major transformation in the personality and character of the Egyptian population.'' Nonetheless, and even though they do not have a strong political presence, the Copts of Egypt (about 8 million people) have a deep sense of survival and endurance.

``The Difficult Years of Survival'' is a must for anyone who is interested in the trials and tribulations of religious minorities in the Middle East.

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