From before the revolution, many Copts have realized their community suffers from a dearth of political and civic participation. The Coptic Orthodox Church’s Bishopric of Youth, for example, has an area of focus entitled ‘Promoting Coptic Participation in Society’, which I encountered when a representative spoke at our local church encouraging the congregation to register to votein the 2010 legislative elections. When he informally polled them for who planned to vote, only a handful indicated any interest at all.
That was before the revolution, when everyone knew that election results were rigged. Yet conventional wisdom still suggests the Copts of Egypt are reticent in their political participation. Recently, a representative of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party presented a brief primer on basic civics in a Sunday School meeting at church, and while the subject received more apparent interest than earlier, the attitude still seemed subdued.
It was not always such. Copts were equal participants with Muslims when British colonialism was repulsed, and helped shape a liberal democratic polity under the Egyptian monarchy. The revolution of 1952 steadily put an end to the budding democratic system, and Copts began to feel excluded from the corridors of power. The increasing religiosity of the state under Sadat accelerated the feelings of marginalization, and Mubarak succeeded in concentrating the Coptic voice within the walls of the church, with Pope Shenouda as its spokesman in both religion and politics. Whatever merits the Copts gained from their direct line to the president, it cemented their tie to the autocratic state, especially against the feared possibility of Islamist rule.
This line of reasoning was heard recently from Bishop Boula, head of the Clerical Council of the Coptic Orthodox Church and bishop of Tanta, a city in Delta region an hour’s drive north of Cairo. He spared me a few minutes of his time in between meetings with the supreme military council, in Cairo – to discuss the Maspero affair – and an election preparation meeting with the priests under his charge, in Tanta.
He related to the priests that despite the military council being much in the wrong in Maspero, where twenty-six people were killed following protests, almost all being Copts, Christians must still support the army. It is the only functioning institution left in Egypt, and Islamists are chomping at the bit. Much of his counsel, however, was to keep the anger of Copts at bay. Priests should work to prevent other political forces from getting Copts all fired up, and too many were going out to demonstrate during a time of economic trouble. The military is having trouble running the country, and Copts should be careful not to make things worse.
There was Biblical counsel in his words as well. Christians should take care not to chant against Field Marshal Tantawi, head of the military council, as this was against Christian teaching. In response to the Maspero tragedy, the church must remind its flock that as the Bible says, ‘All things work together for good,’ and that now was a time to increase societal dialogue, not protest.
The thrust of the meeting, however, was in application of an unmentioned Biblical concept: Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Coptic attention during this time must focus on the vote of every single Christian – a chief responsibility of citizenship. Bishop Boula then reviewed the homework he had each priest prepare.
Each priest had reams of paperwork – maps, graphs, or hand drawn versions of the same. They demonstrated the results of previous instructions to select a church volunteer to be responsible for every fifty houses in his area. Many priests had done admirably; others had not done enough. These had failed to map their constituency down to the details of names and exact street location. The bishop wanted nothing left to chance, or for anyone to slip through the cracks. Not only should the volunteer know each and every Christian under his responsibility, he must also be readied to give clear instructions on voting procedures. He must master the content of www.elections2011.eg, so there would be no confusion the day of the vote.
Bishop Boula issued further instructions during the session as well. Many Christians in Tanta have their official residence outside the area, and several poorer professions, such as the doormen, come from Upper Egypt. Each priest must identify these Christians as well, and study arrangements to assure they are present in their home district for elections. If this involved the church paying their transportation back home, it is worth the expense. Even beyond the coming legislative elections, priests also must help mobilize for the more immediate syndicate board elections. All Christian professionals – engineers, doctors, journalists, etc – must be located and encouraged to vote.
It was a very impressive meeting. Bishop Boula went far beyond exhortation to convince Copts of the necessity of political participation; he actively served as campaign coordinator. It should be noted he gave no instructions on which candidate or party to vote for, only that a vote be cast. The necessity, however, was lost on no one.
According to the results of the March referendum, the elected parliament will appoint the delegates charged with writing the new constitution. The importance of these first elections, therefore, goes far beyond simple legislation. It will set the ground rules for future governance.
If as expected the Islamist parties perform well at the ballot box, will they craft a civil, democratic constitution? Only a handful of Copts admit to the possibility they would fare better under an Islamic system; the rest lean overwhelmingly with the liberal parties, at least among those who have a political inkling. Copts are commonly constituted as 10% of the population. They may be as low as 5-6%, and one partisan estimate tallied them as high as 20%. Regardless, if all mobilized they would have much electoral sway.
Does the effort of Bishop Boula represent illegitimate church interference in politics? Does it represent wholesome spiritual impetus for civic engagement? Or, does it represent the desperation of a religious community pressed between the history of autocratic rule and the fear of Islamist? How much is it a combination of all three?
The Copts of Egypt are well represented in many aspects of business and professional life, but the political arena requires savvy and acumen long left unpracticed. The Egyptian revolution has opened wide the doors to politics, but many Christians are only in the aperture. Bishop Boula is trying to push them through; God may weigh the intentions of his heart, but the ballot box will measure the extent of his success.
This article was originally published on Aslan Media.