Coptic Renaissance

After the revolution, a resurgence for Egypt’s laity

by Sarah Topol

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When Hanan Fekry ran for the board of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate in October 2011, she did not expect to win. For decades, the authoritarian regime had suppressed the union. After the January 2011 revolution, many expected that would change; it seemed as though the country was on a path to reform and journalists were eager to champion press freedoms. Ms. Fekry, a bright-eyed columnist from Al Watani, Egypt’s Christian weekly newspaper, wanted to be a part of that change.

She announced her candidacy knowing she faced three challenges: she is young, a woman and a Christian. All of these were strikes against her in Egypt’s patriarchal, predominantly Muslim society, in which Christians make up roughly 10 percent of the population. (Ethnic Egyptian Christians are known as Copts, derived from the Greek “Aigyptos,” meaning Egyptian.)

At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood was ramping up its parliamentary election campaign and had made no secret of its hopes to also win control of unions. “It wasn’t specifically about being Coptic, but generally the atmosphere was not welcoming,” Ms. Fekry recounts from inside Al Watani’s bustling office in downtown Cairo.

“I was sure I couldn’t win the first time — a lot of people were calling me the dark horse.”

And indeed, she lost.

When the next cycle of elections came around in March 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood controlled the government, but discontent with the Islamist group was growing among the public. Feeling its popularity slipping, the Brotherhood doubled down on union elections.

When Ms. Fekry put in her name as a candidate, she expected fierce competition for the six open slots on the 12-seat governing board. Both candidates vying for the position as chair of the board endorsed her, hoping to garner the Coptic vote.

“They were using me as a decoration, like a flower on a jacket lapel,” she says.

This time, Ms. Fekry won. The first Coptic woman to sit on the journalist syndicate board in decades, she had competed with 46 other candidates. Of the 2,000 or so ballots cast, she had received 800 — a margin of victory far beyond mere political pandering.

“If I said this wave against the Muslim Brotherhood was the only reason I won, I would be unfair to myself,” she says. “I am a professional; that is why I won.”

Hanan Fekry’s success is symbolic of the greater struggle of Copts in Egypt’s recent history.

For decades, Coptic influence in Egypt has waned. Though Christians have been an integral part of Egyptian society for millennia, they have become token figures, whether in literature, television or politics. Governments have used Copts as a window-dressing for national unity, while discrimination and sectarian attacks against the group became the norm. But after the 2011 revolution and the military ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi in July 2013, Copts in Egypt are living through something of a renaissance.

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