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“The First Duty of Charity”: The Coptic Hospital and the Making of a Sectarian Corridor in Twentieth Century Cairo
The dilapidated hospital on Ramses Street became a battleground the night of October 9, 2011. The mangled bodies of protesters were rushed in to spiritual and medical caretakers in frantic efforts to save those they could and pray over those they could not. The infrastructure heaved with overworked medical staff, strained equipment, and anxious loved ones. Outside, a scene of chaos ensued from the Coptic Hospital to where the military attacked Coptic Christian protesters and their allies with live ammunition and armored personnel vehicles at the Maspero National Television and Radio Building. Physical and ideological struggles raged on operation tables and in the morgue, between families, protesters, and religious leaders. What would later become known as the Maspero Massacre became at once a fixture in the chronology of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 as well as a specter in the genealogy of the sectarian question in Egypt. In fact, from its conceptualization during the late nineteenth century, the Coptic Hospital has been a fixture in the geographies and genealogies of sectarianism in Cairo. When Boutros Ghali established the Great Coptic Benevolent Society (GCBS) in 1881, he envisioned medical care for the Coptic poor as the organization’s first and primary duty. When they encountered a myriad of logistical issues in erecting the hospital, they pivoted to a broader definition of the purview of the society’s medical outreach that was explicit in opening its care to Christians across communal affiliations as well as Muslims. When the hospital first opened in 1926, it was the pride of the GCBS and not only boasted medical innovation—but one that made specific claims to the sectarian neutrality of medical care while also reifying the religious differentiation they claimed to eschew. This paper examines how the physical and discursive development of the Coptic hospital reflected shifting notions of social responsibility, national belonging, and the very meaning of sectarianism (ta’ifiyya) during early twentieth century Egypt. These developments were also reflected in the establishment of other charitable projects that permeated the landscape in proximity to the hospital—a confessional mushrooming that organized benevolence work according to sect-based affiliation. The Coptic Hospital became one of the most prominent charitable institutions of a Cairene sectarian corridor that continues into the twenty first century.
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