This paper considers a set of laws passed by the Egyptian government in 1927 that regulated institutions of religious and communal authority. I center my study on Law 19 of 1927 which returned the Coptic Orthodox Communal Council to its 1883 charter. In practical terms, this law restored the Council as a fully elected body of laymen and strengthened its authority over religious endowments at the expense of the Church hierarchy. Reading legislative debates and press coverage reveals that beyond its practical manifestations, Law 19 served as a discursive platform for a variety of actors within the Egyptian government and the Coptic community to lay claim on how the Coptic community would be defined, with emphasis placed on the representative character of communal institutions and the state’s prerogative to regulate communal structures through legislation. The passage of Law 19, along with the death of Coptic Pope Kyrillos V one month later, opened the door for the reformulation of Coptic communal authority in line with the ideals of Egypt’s “liberal era,” including popular representation and participatory politics. It also strengthened a legislative precedent for the state’s intervention into and regulation of this process.
I read the legislative regulation of Coptic communal organization alongside laws passed in the same year that reformed Islamic educational institutions and heightened the power of Egyptian Jewish notables at the expense of their religious leadership. In spite of the timing of these laws, they have typically not been considered together. I argue that these laws constituted a larger current of Egyptian government efforts to regulate religious communities and their institutions of authority in line with both the promises and the threats of popular politics in the post-independence liberal era. In 1927, this was given urgency due to fears over “reactionism” in the face of the declining health of Wafd party leader and nationalist icon Saad Zaghloul and the prospects of a more factionalized political future. The overall effect of these laws was to make questions of religious authority legible to the logic of the Egyptian government’s legislative regime and to codify religious community as an object of state governance.