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World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Egypt : Overview

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date November 2013
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Egypt : Overview, November 2013, available at: [accessed 10 October 2015]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Last updated November 2013


Egypt occupies the north-eastern corner of Africa, the Sinai Peninsula and several islands in the Gulf of Suez and the Red Sea. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, Sudan, the Red Sea, Israel, Gaza and Libya. For millennia the Nile River has nourished human populations along its banks. Egypt is the second-most populous country in Africa and its population of 82 million remains concentrated in cities and towns along the great river. The Saharan portion of the country, which is further in distance from the Nile river, remains sparsely populated.


Main languages: Arabic (official)

Main religions: Islam, Coptic Christianity

Minority groups include Copts est. 4.7-7.1 million (6-9%), (Source: ICG lower estimate/CIA Yearbook higher) Nubians 200,000 (0.25%) (source: Ethnologue 1996 ); Baha'i 1,500-2,000 (source: US State Department 2012, International Religious Freedom Report) and Jews, fewer than 70. (source: US State Department 2012, International Religious Freedom Report)

Total population: 85.3 million (CIA World Factbook, 2013 July Est.)

Many Egyptians are descended from the successive Arab settlers who followed the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, but many others are not. While many Egyptians refer to the majority ethnic identity as 'Arab' (and indeed Egypt's leader at independence preached pan-Arabism), others use the term 'Egyptian' as an ethnic as well as national moniker and point to their shared civilization in the Nile Valley for centuries before the Arab arrival. Those who use the ethnic term 'Egyptian' are sometimes accused of nationalism in the Arab world. Nubians living south of Aswan have been Islamized and Arabized in religion and culture although they still speak the Nubian language, Nobiin. Nomads who live in the semi-desert comprise an Arab-Berber mixture.

The Copts are indigenous Egyptian Christians, the vast majority belonging to the Coptic Orthodox Church. They live throughout Egypt but are concentrated in Alexandria, Cairo and the urban areas of Upper Egypt (southern Egypt). They represent between around 6-9 per cent of the total population, but their proportion reaches an estimated 18-19 per cent in the south. Most Copts are working class peasants and labourers, although there is a Coptic business upper class and a middle class of urban professionals and small landowners. Copts are present in most institutions of the state, and there are Coptic members of all registered political parties.

Whereas Sharia law recognises Coptic Christians as 'people of the book', no such tolerance exists for the tiny Baha'i community of 1,500-2,000. Baha'i is a religion with roots in Shia Islam that emanated from Persia in the 19th century. Because the Baha'i believe that God's word is passed to humans through an ongoing series of revelations, it clashes with Islam's view that the Prophet Mohammed received the final revelations. Its followers face severe discrimination in Egypt.

By the twelfth century there were up to 20,000 Jews in Egypt. Under Ottoman rule they faced institutional discrimination, but during the nineteenth century their status improved, and they achieved prominence in commerce and industry. By the 1940s, 65,000-70,000 Jews lived in Cairo, Alexandria and other urban communities. The 1948 Arab-Israeli war saw hundreds of Jews arrested, their property and businesses confiscated; bombings in Jewish areas killed and maimed hundreds. Some 25,000 Jews left Egypt between 1948 and 1950, many going to Israel. In 1952 anti-British sentiment led to attacks on Jewish establishments, and after the 1956 war, 3,000 Jews were interned and thousands of others were given a few days to leave the country, while their property was confiscated by the state. By 1957 only 8,000 Jews were left. Hundreds of Jews were arrested and tortured after the 1967 war, and those still in public employment were dismissed. As a result of further emigration, by 1970 there were only 1,000 Jews in Egypt, and today there are fewer than 70, most of them elderly.

There are also around 1,000-1,500 Jehovah's Witnesses living in Egypt: despite being a form of Christianity, the faith is not officially recognized. Congregations were formally established in the country from the 1930s and were able to practice with relative freedom until the 1950s. However, despite receiving formal recognition during this period, first in Cairo in 1951 and then in Alexandria in 1956, the Jehovah's Witnesses suffered an increasing wave of hostile rumours alleging them to be covert Zionists and a threat to national security. In 1959 they were obliged to halt their activities and the following year, like Bahá'í, were illegalized by presidential decree. In the decade that followed, in particular, its adherents were exposed to serious maltreatment.

Egypt also has a number of smaller minorities who also continue to face marginalization and discrimination. These include Ahmadiyya, who are followers of a modern Islamic sect that is considered heretical by some traditional Muslim scholars. There is also a small group of Quranists: Muslims who regard the Qur'an as the only valid religious source for Islam. They have experienced state harassment due to its perception of the group as unorthodox.


Egypt was unified in the fourth millennium BC. Conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century, Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 to 1914 and held by the British from 1882 to 1922. In 1928, in the city of Ismailia, Hassan Al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood - a Sunni Islamist organization - which grew to be one of the most powerful and influential Islamist organizations in the Arab world. In 1956 Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser became President, and in the early 1960s began shaping Egypt into a socialist republic. From 1970 President Anwar Sadat followed opposing policies to those of Nasser by promoting peace with Israel, economic liberalization and Egyptian nationalism.

In 1981 Muslim fundamentalists assassinated Sadat. He had favoured accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood while cracking down on more radical armed Islamic groups. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, maintained the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, and occasionally linked them to the militant 'terrorist organization' al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya. Gama'a's low-level guerrilla war underwent a resurgence from August 1994, with attacks on Egyptian Copts, prominent secularists and tourists. The government used incommunicado detention, torture and severe force to contain Islamic militants, and several hundred people were killed, mainly police and militants. Gamaa's political manifesto remains vague, but grievances include government corruption and incompetence, especially in the neglected south of the country. There were low turn-outs in the 1990 and 1995 multi-party elections, and the government has been accused of using the crackdown on militants to stifle wider opposition.

Significant numbers of Islamic militants were reportedly summarily executed through a shoot-to-kill policy. In November 1995 a military court convicted fifty-four senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a move widely seen as the climax of a campaign to ensure another overwhelming majority for the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in the country's elections. Most Egyptian political parties, including secular ones, denounced the trial. The Brotherhood rejects violence and insists on its belief in parliamentary democracy. The government's approach has tended to reinforce extremist positions by closing all political avenues and dialogue, thus making violence an alternative avenue for those concerned about corruption, mismanagement and poverty.

Although a military crackdown by the Mubarak regime reduced the frequency of terrorist attacks allegedly conducted by Gamaa, such as the 1997 killings of 58 tourists near Luxor, it also served to further consolidate the government's authoritarian grip on power, as well as to justify the continuation of the emergency laws, without fear of significant criticism from the West. Western support, especially the enormous development and military aid received from the United States, has put the government further out of touch with the political sentiment of the Egyptian population. This was particularly the case following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The divide between Mubarak and the Egyptian population has played into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist opponents.

Nevertheless, there was some international pressure for reform. Political repression in Egypt received more attention following the arrest in 2000 of human rights activist and government critic, Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Such pressure led Mubarak to announce some reforms at the end of 2004, and promise multi-candidate elections for 2005. However, Mubarak's concessions to reform were limited, and only insofar as they did not challenge his hold on power. His regime continued to be characterized by repression and a lack of transparency.

In December 2010, shortly before the end of his rule, Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) won 83 per cent of the seats in parliamentary elections. The two main opposition parties, the Muslim Brotherhood and Wafd, boycotted the second round vote after alleging widespread fraud in the first ballot. The poll was criticized by the United States and the EU. As many as eight people died in election related violence.


Egypt's history as a modern state has seen the country develop from a liberal monarchy to the pan-Arabic socialism of President Nasser, followed by a near monopolization of power by the National Democratic Party (NDP) under Anwar Sadat and then his successor, Hosni Mubarak. From 1981 to 2011 Egypt experienced three decades of enforced rule, with civil liberties restricted and any form of dissert aggressively suppressed.

The culmination of political repression, social exclusion, rising prices, corruption and insufficient reforms found expression in the popular protests of February 2011, which were inspired by events in Tunisia. The popular uprising forced Mubarak to concede his position as a Western backed autocratic leader, paving the way for an opportunity to implement real political and social change in one of the previously most stable, but repressive, regimes in the Middle East.

In March 2011 Egyptians approved a package of constitutional reforms which began the process of new elections. A month later, Mubarak was arrested on suspicion of corruption. However, in November that year protestors clashed with security forces as the military were accused of trying to hold on to power; due to the unrest Prime Minister Essam Sharaf resigned. In response Kamal al-Ganzouri was appointed to the role, tasked with providing stability until the January 2012 elections.

The January parliamentary elections brought resounding success for Islamist parties as the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won 47.2 per cent of the vote, whilst the ultra-conservative Nour Party won 24.3 per cent. This was preceded by the success of the FJP's presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi in the first round of voting in May, coinciding with the military announcing the end of the two-decade-old state of emergency. However, two days before the final round of voting, Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) ordered the dissolution of the parliament as the supreme constitutional court ruled that one third of the parliament had been illegally elected - thus passing legislative authority back to the SCAF. Nevertheless, with a turnout of 51 per cent, Morsi narrowly won the election with 51.7 per cent, defeating the former Mubarak-era Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik.

Despite the promises of President Morsi to govern "for all Egyptians", the first act of his new PM Hisham Qandil was to exclude secular and liberal elements from the new cabinet, instead selecting technocrats, Islamists, and figures from the outgoing government. In addition Morsi dismissed Defence Minister Tantawi and Chief of Staff Sami Annan in what was seen as a move to weaken the control of the military over Egypt's legislation and the drafting of the new constitution. Furthermore, in November 2012 Morsi stripped the judiciary of the right to challenge his decisions, ultimately backing down in the face of protesters who viewed the move as an anti-democratic power-grab.

Despite ongoing protests the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly approved a draft constitution which increased the role of Islam and appeared to restrict the freedom of speech and assembly. This provoked protests from secularists, women, and Christian groups who were marginalized in the new framework. The disenfranchisement of many groups was highlighted by the constitutional referendum turnout of only 32.9 per cent: nevertheless, the constitution was approved by 63.8 per cent of voters and signed into law in late December.

Opposition towards the presidency of Morsi increased throughout the start of 2013, with 50 people killed in January during days of street protests. In March the main opposition, the National Salvation Front, announced a boycott of upcoming parliamentary elections. However, a court blocked Morsi's attempts to bring these elections forward to April due to the failure to refer the electoral law to the Constitutional Court. Tensions increase further as Morsi appointed allies in 13 of the 27 governorships, including a former member of the Islamist group linked to the 1997 Luxor massacre.

On 30 June, one year after Morsi's election to office, thousands took to the streets to call for early presidential elections; the next day the army gave Morsi and the opposition 48 hours to resolve the conflict or they themselves would provide a "road map" for peace. Despite attempts at concessions, Morsi was removed from power by the military on 3 July, while Chief Justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court Adly Mansour was appointed interim President and the constitution suspended.

Whilst Mansour set a timeline for amending the constitution and new elections, planned for mid-February 2014, violence raged as pro-Morsi encampments were targeted by security forces, leading to hundreds of deaths. The chaos resulted in the imposition of a state of emergency and curfews. In September, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters banned the Muslim Brotherhood from carrying out any activities in Egypt and ordered the confiscation of its assets.

On 4 November, the trial of Morsi and 14 Muslim Brotherhood figures for allegedly inciting the killing of protestors in 2012 began. Whilst Mubarak seems to be on the verge of relative freedom, Morsi, the first civilian President of Egypt since independence, appears destined for imprisonment.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples


The minority Coptic Christians, estimated at 5-10% of the overall population but concentrated more heavily in Cairo, Alexandra and the south, remain vulnerable. A number of sectarian incidents occurred towards the end of Mubarak's rule, reaching a climax in 2010-2011. On 6 January 2010, six Copts were killed in a drive by shooting in Naga Hamady after they left a late night mass to celebrate the eve of the Coptic Orthodox Christmas. Later that year in November, clashes erupted between Copts and police over the construction of a church: the Coptic community believed they had permission to build but were prevented from doing so by the authorities. One protestor was killed.

Sectarian tensions were further exacerbated when 21 people were killed and 70 hurt in a bomb blast outside a church in Alexandria. About 1,000 worshippers were attending a New Year's service when the suspected suicide attack took place. Several hundred Christians clashed with Muslims and police following the attack.

In the wake of popular protests that overthrew President Mubarak, 13 people were killed in March 2011 when a Muslim mob attacked Christians who were protesting against the destruction of a church. This most recent attack raised concerns about continuing sectarian tensions and prompted calls for religious and legal reforms to end discrimination in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Since the fall of Mubarak Coptic Christians have suffered an increasing number of violent attacks on their property and churches, with many accusing the SCAF of complicity by ignoring or actively engaging in such violence alongside Islamists. In addition, such violence and the rise of Salafist parties since the revolution has resulted in increasing numbers of Copts leaving Egypt.

During 2011 more than ten major attacks against Copts were committed, the majority centred on disputes over church building permission as Coptic communities must obtain official endorsement and permission of the local Muslim community for such work. For example, on 9 October 2011 28 Coptic Christians were killed by security forces whilst demonstrating against the destruction of a church in Aswan. Furthermore, since Mubarak's overthrow there has been a rise in the number of Copts imprisoned on blasphemy charges, as Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Director claims that defamation laws are being used to, 'trample over people's right to freedom of expression and conscience'.

This insecurity persisted after the election of President Morsi, evidenced by the ongoing failure of the government to protect the Copt minority. An outbreak of sectarian violence in El-Khosous in April 2013 took the lives of four Copts and a Muslim, for example, and despite official condemnation no investigation took place to identify the perpetrators or propose long term solutions. This pattern has continued since Morsi's removal. Violent assaults in July and August 2013 left many dead or injured, with security forces failing to take effective action to prevent or prosecute these incidents. In October, an attack on a Coptic church in October 2013 left four dead, including an eight-year-old girl.


Despite being present in Egypt since the nineteenth century, in 1960 the legal status of the Bahá'í as a recognized group was annulled under the Nasser government. Though nominally guaranteed equal rights and religious freedoms under the 1971 constitution, Bahá'is in practice have retained a secondary legal status due to ongoing religious discrimination. While personal status issues in Egypt are informed by religious rather than civil law, this recognition only extends to Islam, Christianity and Judaism, not the Bahá'i faith. This means that many aspects of the lives of Bahá'i adherents, such as marriage, divorce and family relationships, are not recognized by the state.

One ongoing challenge Bahá'i have faced since 1960 is their inability to legally register for identification cards, as Egyptians are obliged to include details of their religious faith and so Bahá'i, as an 'unofficial' faith, could not complete this. In 2009, however, after years of legal battles, the Egyptian Interior Ministry issued a decree (no. 520/2009) that allowed 'non recognized' religions to not have to identify as one of the three 'recognized' faiths. Instead officials were instructed to place a dash (-) before the line demarcating religion on all official identification documents. This meant Bahá'í and members of other faiths did not have to list their religion on their identification papers, though other restrictions still remain in place.


In March 2010, government security officials arrested 11 Ahmadiyya on charges of "contempt of religion" and undermining national stability. They were detained for months before the final members of the group were released in June that year. A number of Ahmadiyya were also detained in December 2010.


Quranists have faced continued state harassment in recent years. In 2007, four Quranists were arrested accused of defaming Islam, sparking condemnation from human rights groups. A Quranist writer was also detained at the airport in November 2009 and refused the right to travel out of the country. In October 2010, a Quranist blogger was also arrested and remained in prison for three months before eventually being released.

Jehovah's Witnesses

Jehovah's Witnesses had their legal status annulled under Nasser. Despite repeated applications, Egyptian courts have consistently refused to change this, most recently in a December 2009 ruling. Nevertheless, in 2006 successful negotiations with the government led to the government accepting their right to meet together in worship and prayer without interference, as well as granting them the right to meet in private in groups of up to 30 people. Nevertheless, incidents of surveillance and harassment of Jehovah's Witnesses by state security continued in intervening years. Though the situation appears to have improved slightly since Mubarak's departure in 2011, the group still face monitoring and occasional obstruction of their right to worship.

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