Coptic Participation in Elections

Samir Zaki is an employee of the Egyptian National Bank, but his passion associates him with the Bishopric of Youth under the leadership of Bishop Musa, in which he encourages Coptic Christians to fully participate in society. On January 2, 2010 he was invited to present a lecture at St. Mark Church in Maadi, Cairo on the necessity for Copts to participate in Egyptian elections. For two weeks previous Fr. Ishaq had closed the Friday mass with an invitation to the church to attend this important lecture. He stressed that this was vital to the life of Copts in Egypt, noting the success of Copts abroad in affecting American politics due to their coordinated efforts. Though St. Mark Church boasts a regular attendance of five hundred people, only fifty came to attend the lecture, mostly from the older generation. Perhaps this is enough indication of Coptic neglect of elections, and an apt foreshadowing of what was to come.

Samir began his address discussing religion, asking in reference to the Coptic mass, do we pray for Christians alone or do we pray for the whole world? Everyone nodded in agreement that Coptic prayers implore God’s blessing on all, and Samir followed up by asking rhetorically if it were to be that Muslims were slaughtering other Muslims, would we not pray for them? All agreed that of course they would. The church, he maintains, teaches us that we belong to the communities in which we live, and we are to care for that world in which we find ourselves. Christians, Jesus declares, are the salt of the earth; salt is an agent of preservation. Just as food without salt tastes bad, so this world without Christian participation leaves it lacking. Samir implored the audience to present a good taste to those around them.

Following this introduction he moved into history. Beginning with Muhammad Ali he mentioned the major political figures in modern Egyptian history, celebrating them for their modernizing influences and allowance of Coptic participation in society. Sa’id Pasha allowed Copts to participate in the army and lifted the payment and stigma of jizia (an Islamic tax on non-Muslim peoples) from both Christians and Jews. Later, when the British occupied the country Copts followed the leadership of Muslim leaders Mustafa Kamal and Sa’d Zaghlul in resistance and nationalism. The Wafd party enjoyed wide Coptic membership, and the unity flag of cross and crescent flew over the city streets. During this time Cops occupied influential posts, even as foreign minister and leader of Parliament. It was a golden age, but an age that was brought about as Copts invested themselves in the national cause.

This positive situation continued but then reversed itself over time. The causes may be numerous, but from an era in which 15% of the Parliament was represented by Copts, today there is but one percent. At this point Samir shifted his focus and addressed the audience. He asked how many of the fifty present had voted in the last elections. Only ten people raised their hands.

At the beginning of the presentation Samir distributed a small handout encouraging Copts to register in the upcoming elections. Now he referred to the paper, which also contained instructions on how to complete the form required at the police office. He said a voter registration card is a symbol of citizenship. Copts are proud of their current status as citizens of Egypt, but they neglect this important expression of citizenship.

He continued, however, asking questions which revealed the depth of their neglect. How many people have run for a position on the school board? Four people raised their hands. How many have sought a leadership position in a non-church related NGO? One person raised his hand. How many have run for leadership in their professional union? Zero.

Having exposed their flaws, he sharpened his critique, turning to social participation. He asked how many people have even ten Muslims that they know well, even Muslims with whom they exchange friendly greetings? Perhaps the audience was battered; perhaps the question did not demand an answer. Silence was a sufficient confession.

Applying his point he spoke with pathos to the audience—we complain about our situation, but we have isolated ourselves, and have withdrawn from society. If this situation continues, he assured, in fifteen years there will likely appear a government minister, a preacher, a television announcer, someone who will declare, “Look at these Copts, they stand alone, keeping to themselves. They care nothing for us.” This sentiment, he warned, could become fatal.

He explained further. If you know a Muslim, he assured, he can see you as a friend, or at least a good person. Yet if he does not know you he will not think of you at all, and will likely think nothing of you. Why should he be blamed? He has nothing upon which to build a good opinion.

At this point one in the audience could not take it any longer. He protested, and Samir gave him the microphone. It is not we who have withdrawn, he lamented; it is they who have refused us.

Samir commiserated. There is a fanaticism which exists in society, and it exists even in sectors of the government. Yet at the same time, there is much room for us to participate—areas in which we suffer no hindrances. Even here, however, we are absent.

With this comment one woman countered angrily. In the faculty of medicine in the university certain Christians sought to cooperate together to improve things, especially since many of their members had good relations with the higher authorities. Yet when there were accusations of fraud the authorities ignored them, refusing even to launch an investigation. When we do participate, she argued, we are discriminated against, and our good standing does nothing to help us. Is there any question why there is increasing apathy?

Samir admitted that these incidents occur, but he raised a different issue, this time in the doctors’ union. Copts make up 35% of the membership, while those associated with the Muslim Brotherhood constitute only 6%. Why then did the 6% win? One reason was that many of the 35% did not even bother to vote, reflective of a larger malady in which Copts lack a culture of elections. Each and every member of the 6% was organized, not just in making sure to cast a ballot, but to maneuver behind the scenes with the legal tricks that can swing the outcome if properly manipulated. Copts are ignorant of these methods, largely because they have abandoned politics to others.

By the time he had finished this explanation, many in the audience were clearly murmuring. One spoke out. Why is our attitude negative, he asked? It is because we have tried to participate, but it has been to no avail.

The communal discontent was growing, and Samir’s partner approached to take the microphone. With the new speaker everyone fell silent, and Michael introduced his words with a confession of his comparative youth in view of the audience, but agreement with Samir. Do not be surprised, he counseled, Jesus has promised that we will be persecuted. Yet as we are a minority, we must keep to a positive attitude. We must be the ones who bring the social, or electoral, or union agenda which is superior to that of anyone else. If our plan is better, we will gain influence, respect, and votes, even from Muslims. Who will not support the best ideas for the community at large? Instead, he expressed, we bring nothing.

Samir built upon his words. Look at us, he said, we have the maglis al-milli, the denominational council, and we do not even participate in this! Why do we vote for nothing?

A younger woman advanced to take the microphone. She spoke with understanding of his message, but related that as a young woman she is afraid. Elections sometimes turn violent; it is better simply to stay away.

Samir answered sympathetically. Yes, he agreed, but this is mainly a phenomenon in Upper Egypt; in Cairo we do not face this difficulty.

The protest in the pews became palpable. The woman who spoke earlier of the faculty of medicine spoke again. She personally had gone to vote in an election, and was physically barred from entering. This was not just Cairo, it was Maadi!

Others told similar stories or raised other protests, and Samir tried to answer them all, but he was losing the audience. One person supported him—there are two thousand Copts living in Maadi, and the elections here are always close. If we vote with one mind we will swing the vote to whomever we wish. Another person simply stood and left in protest. Fr. Ishaq advanced to the podium and everyone quieted down. Samir understood the time was soon to end, and delivered his practical message.

The deadline for registration in the upcoming elections is January 31, he explained, and following this there is an election in June, another in October, and then a presidential election next January. Please, he implored, go to the police station and register, but do not go alone. Take your family, your friends, your co-workers with you. Whatever you think about this discussion today, go and register, and make yourself eligible to vote. You can consider what you want to do afterwards.

Fr. Ishaq took the microphone, and thanked Samir for coming. He continued emphasizing the importance of Coptic participation in the society in general, and in the elections in particular. He ended the evening with Samir’s earlier technique: Now with all we have heard, how many of you will go to be registered? Fifteen raised their hands.

I wondered about Samir’s opinion afterwards. Did this evening represent a victory of five, or a colossal failure? It is a struggle he clearly believes in, but it appears to be an uphill battle. As I left I greeted him, though he was pressed to leave. “May God encourage you,” I spoke in comfort. “It’s ok,” he replied, “I have been at this now for fifteen years.”

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