The Coptic condition

, National Post · Nov. 23, 2011 | Last Updated: Nov. 23, 2011 4:07 AM ET

I know a number of people of a certain age who were born in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. They tend to be cultivated, lively, warm and cosmopolitan.

I made the mistake once of casually alluding to one such friend as "Egyptian," and she bristled. The Alexandria of her memory, she informed me, is - or rather was, before so many non-Muslims fled or were kicked out when the monarchy was overthrown - a sophisticated and culturally superior distinct society, having little in common with the "Rest of Egypt," as a Quebecer might put it.

I have never visited. What I know of that once-great and glamorous city is largely shaped by a long imaginative marination, at the height of my literary impressionism, in the lush, evocative world of the novels forming Lawrence Durrell's Alexandrian Quartet.

Published in full in 1960, Durrell's saga is set in Alexandria, before the Second World War, when Egypt was a British puppet state, presided over by the bon vivant and ineffectual King Farouk, Egypt's penultimate monarch. It is hard to imagine now, with Islamism dominating popular emotions, but in the Alexandria that Durrell immortalized, five races, five languages and a dozen creeds cohabited with mutual respect and even intimacy in that city's richly diverse, apolitical, commercially churning melting pot.

Amongst the characters in Durrell's pullulating plot: an Anglo-Irish novelist; a Greek dancer; a wealthy Copt and his seductive Jewish wife; an Italian merchant; an obnoxious English writer; a roguish but charming Jewish homosexual; a Greek poet; and a transvestite Muslim policeman.

Who of that urbane crowd is left in Alexandria? Mainly Coptic Christians. They have long been enduring a terrible discriminatory ordeal, including the Jan. 1, 2011 bombing of the Coptic Orthodox church of Saint Mark and Pope Peter. Last month, when Coptic Christians and liberal Muslims marched in Cairo to protest the burning of a church, a chaotic riot broke out in which at least two dozen people were killed, many by security forces. For all the talk of the Arab Spring, many Egyptian Copts must be nostalgic for the days of Hosni Mubarak. Whatever else could be said for him, he at least knew how to deal with Islamists and other hotheads intent on staging pogroms.

The Copts are absorbing the same lesson that Jews have been forced to learn over and over again - especially in the lands of the former Ottoman empire: Unpopular minority groups often are better off living under one absolute ruler, who can be flattered, accommodated and served, and who is generally satisfied if you don't make trouble, than being at the mercy of the "people" or their government surrogates. The "people" are easily roused to scapegoatism by demagogues eager to deflect their attention from the regime's selfinflicted deficits; and scape-goatism leads to violence the authorities wilfully ignore.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Islamists often attacked Copts as a pastime during their southern uprising against Mubarak's government. The government itself tried to burnish its Islamic bona fides by imposing restrictions on the building of churches, and by barring Copts from certain professional and all political posts. Copts have lived in Egypt for two millennia. Yet little by little, Coptic dignity has been chipped away, and fear now prevails in their communities.

Since Mubarak's departure, spontaneous attacks by ordinary Muslims against their Christian fellow citizens have gone unpunished. The most trivial "provocation" can set off reprisals of attacks on homes or shops: the rebuilding of an old church; the rumour of a romance between a Muslim and a Christian; the failure of a Christian to show proper respect to a Muslim. In October a teacher ordered a 17-year old Christian student to remove his pendant cross. He refused. The teacher began beating him, his fellow students joined in, and he died.

The Copts are like the Jews in their numbers and their history of precarious sojourn in Islamic lands, but they are unlike the Jews in having no particular affinity with the West, and of course no homeland of their own. But the Jews do have a homeland; and they have been sympathetic to refugees from other lands before (including subSaharan Africans); and they should feel a natural sympathy for the Copts.

Tel Aviv is no match for Alexandria in beauty, grandeur or fabled cultural history. But it is close by; the climate and landscape are familiar; many languages are spoken there, Arabic amongst them; and tolerance for other religions and lifestyles abounds. Copts are peaceful and cherish the same basic values as Jews. Something to consider as, in Egypt, the moving hand writes on. Mene mene tekel upharsin: God has numbered your days.