Coptic Participation in Politics

Georgette Qillini is a member of the Egyptian People’s Assembly. A Copt, she gained prominence during the crisis of Nag Hamadi, in which six Christians and a Muslim policeman were killed outside a church on Coptic Christmas. Qillini spoke boldly and decisively during the governmental review, laying blame on the Coptic governor of the region, Magdi Ayyub, Muslim People’s Assembly representative for Nag Hamadi, Abd el-Rahman el-Ghoul, and the Ministry of the Interior for their share in the “persecution”, in her words, suffered by Copts in the region. In her stance she was rallied around by many Muslims and especially Copts, who found in her a defender of their rights.

Finding a defender, however, is no easy matter. Copts comprise less than 1% of the membership in parliament, though their population in Egypt is estimated to be roughly 6-10% of the whole. This disparity was addressed by Qillini during a presentation given on June 28, 2010 at a youth meeting at St. Mark’s Orthodox Church in Maadi, Cairo. During her address she called the Coptic community to task for failing to participate in politics, encouraging them to “change themselves” rather than simply complain about their understood mistreatment in society.

Qillini opened her remarks with admission that ‘politics’ as a subject was on the lips of everyone. This is election season in Egypt and Copts as much as anyone pay attention to the national developments. Qillini expanded the thought, however, stating that politics is grounded in a political party system, of which most Egyptians, but especially Copts, are woefully absent. How then can they effectively participate at any level more substantial than conversation?

The first step, Qillini delineated, is simple knowledge of the system as constructed in the Constitution. Within this document our rights are found, she said, but we do not know them. Every Egyptian citizen – man/woman, Muslim/Christian, rich/poor – is guaranteed the same rights and must be offered the same opportunities. Failure to participate, however, unbalances this equation. Though rights are guaranteed, opportunities go by the wayside.

The second step is to focus on the maintenance of dialogue in society. Since the Copt is a person, complete, a full citizen before the law, he or she has every right to speak from personal perspective. Dialogue, however, requires being with the other, being open to the other, and knowing the other. Many Copts isolate themselves in church activities, and thus, know as little as they are known. If you have studied a subject, pursue it with diligence; then, be present in society so as to speak about it. Once in the public square, ask and be asked about all things.

The third step is to participate actively in elections, but even more so, in the political party system. Several months ago the leadership of St. Mark’s Church repeatedly encouraged the congregation to register to vote in the upcoming elections. Aware or unaware, Qillini asked those present, roughly 200 young adults but with substantial members of the older generations, how many of you have received your voter registration cards? Only about 25% raised their hands. Qillini pressed further, asking how many of these had voted. Of the 25%, only a quarter signaled affirmatively. Her last question asked how many present were members of an established political party. Only two identified as such.

Within her remarks Qillini anticipated and spoke to a common Coptic objection. What chance is there for participation, many wonder, when the political atmosphere is not pluralistic and anti-Coptic sentiment exists in many fields of society? Though not dismissing the assessment, Qillini stated though discrimination is an obvious growing attitude in the society, there are still many balanced voices which oppose it. The negative attitude of Copts in participating in politics, however, stems primarily from two sources: frustration and fear. Fear, however, has little to do with Christian faith. We pray ‘Our Father who is in heaven’, she counseled. If this is true, why should we fear? Have we forgotten that nothing can happen unless God wills it? Yes, there may be consequences which follow our efforts, but there is also reward. Qillini accepted that, of course, not everyone has the courage necessary to speak fearlessly. Nevertheless, everyone can gradually, but conscientiously, prepare themselves to build the courage required. Society will not magically change. We are the ones who must change ourselves first.

Following the presentation Qillini was presented with a banner on behalf of the youth of the churches of Maadi. The banner spoke of everyone’s support for her election campaign, celebrating her as the bravest voice in parliament and the best representative of Egyptian Copts. Afterwards, Fr. Yunan clarified that this banner was not a statement on behalf of the church, for the church should not involve itself in politics. Certain youth prepared this on their own, he said, and wished with it to honor Qillini. It was a telling sign, however, for the extent to which Coptic political sentiment has adopted her as one of its chief representatives. Should Qillini’s words have any fruit, however, she may in time prove to be less exceptional. She certainly would prefer it this way.

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