The failure of the imposing movement for democracy and citizenship that began with the revolution in January 2011 leaves Egypt disillusioned by the return to the old, ultra-nationalist and securitarian practices of a state brought to its knees by Islamist violence. Will the new power and the Muslim and Christian institutions have the lucidity and ability to exorcise their communities’ old demons and give the people reasons to hope before too long?
One never ceases to be astonished by the huge discrepancy between one assessment of the number of Copts in Egypt and another: the figures range from 5.7% of the overall population (and therefore a little less than 5 million people), according to the official census taken in 1996, to the 15% or even 20% sometimes claimed by ecclesial sources.1 The uncertainty about the actual number of Egyptian Christians adds to the malaise that the debate about national identity fuels amongst them. An overestimate of the Coptic population often goes hand in hand with a sort of ethno-nationalism that rejects the “Arabness” of the Egyptian Christians, the latter being considered more authentically “Egyptian” than the country’s Muslims. In reality, the issue of the Coptic population’s weight would be less thorny if citizenship were defined in terms of rights and duties. In this extremely delicate moment of political and social transition while the debate about Egypt’s identity is raging, however, the question of numbers becomes vital. In any case, the Copts are unquestionably the most substantial Christian community in the Arab world today. Less hit by the emigration phenomenon2 than the other Christians in the Near East (at least until recently), the Copts constitute Christianity’s most vital force and a presence that is decisive for its survival in the region that saw its birth.
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1See the excellently documented article by Cornelis Hulsman, “Discrepancies between Coptic Statistics in the Egyptian Census and Estimates Provided by the Coptic Orthodox Church,” Mélanges de l’Institut Dominicain d’Études Orientales, 29 (2012), pp. 419-482, which concludes that the official censuses are generally credible, despite a small margin of error caused by the odd tension or manipulation of data.
2The number of Copts in the diaspora is difficult to evaluate. The most common estimates put the figure at somewhere around one million, but some propose far greater numbers. Not without reason, this diaspora has often been accused of aggravating, from the outside, the community rift between the Muslims and Copts who have remained in Egypt.
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