Egypt’s parliamentary elections are over.
While noting irregularities, former US president Jimmy Carter, through his Carter Center for promoting democracy, has judged the elections to be “acceptable.” When the first post-Mubarak parliament opens session today (January 23) its composition will be 72 percent Islamist.
The celebrated chant of Tahrir Square – “Muslims and Christians are one hand” – has given way to sectarian politics in which liberal parties, favored by the great majority of Copts, received a crushing defeat.
The Democratic Alliance, dominated by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the Muslim Brotherhood, has won 46 percent of the seats. The more conservative Salafi Nour Party has captured 24 percent. A handful of smaller Islamist parties add another 2 percent. Liberal politicians, who were once hopeful, are reeling from their losses. Coptic Christians are left pondering their murky future.
Today, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed article about risks to freedom that observed, “Especially critical is protection for Copts, the canaries in Egypt’s coal mine. The fate of Egypt’s democracy—and the chances for the emergence of non-Islamist options—will rest on whether this millennia-old community, as well as an array of other groups, feels comfortable in the new Egypt.”
Amin Makram Ebeid, a Coptic intellectual and author, summarizes four primary Coptic responses:
- A minority, though sizeable, is planning to emigrate.
- The largest group is looking for spiritual, perhaps even mystical solutions.
- A smaller party is dedicated to stay and fight for their rights, especially in securing a non-Islamist constitution, which according to the national referendum in March is the provenance of parliament.
- Finally, there is a group that is looking to cooperate with Islamists, provided Copts do not lose their identity in the process.
Paula Magdy, a 24-year-old volunteer librarian in a Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, illustrates the group seeking spiritual solutions. “We pray to God to save us, but I am not afraid. Up until now we have not been sure about anything. Maybe they have won elections, but we will win the war?”
Fawzi Khalil, a pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Church also estimates most Christians fall into the spiritual solution category, with only about 10 percent actively participating in shaping the political outcome for Copts.
Standing their Ground
Emad Gad is one of the 10 percent, representing the group wishing to stay and fight. He is a Coptic leader in the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, winning a parliament seat in the north Cairo district. Naturally, he offers political perspective.
“We don’t fear the result of elections because there were many violations that skewed results. In any case, parliament will not form the government, the president will, and the military council also maintains its influence.”
For him, the constitution is the largest battleground, but liberals are working on an agreement with Islamists for each party to nominate a limited number of members to the committee which will draft it.
Nevertheless, “If Islamists reach toward a Saudi-style government we have many means to resist. Certainly the new generation is able to go once again to the streets. I expect Egypt will remain a civil state.”
Father Philopater will also stay and fight, but his is a religious perspective. A controversial priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church who has repeatedly clashed with the hierarchy, Philopater expects a continuation of the suffering of Copts.
“The one benefit is that persecution will now be obvious, as under Mubarak it was always assigned to hidden hands or deviant people.”
Furthermore, Copts should not cooperate with Islamists. ‘It is true some speak of protecting Copts, but others speak about jizia, call us infidels, or instruct Muslims not to greet us in the street.’
Ebeid agrees with non-cooperation. “Christians should not support them in their quest for power. If we sell ourselves, why should liberal Muslims continue to fight?”
Cooperating with Islamists
Then there is the group which promotes cooperation. Rafik Habib, son of a now-deceased prominent Protestant pastor, represents a tiny Coptic constituency that actually favors Islamist rule. He is among roughly one hundred Copts who are founding members of the Brotherhood’s FJP, and serves as one of its vice-presidents.
He believes Egypt must accept the essential religious basis of society, not deny it.
“Secularism surrounds Christianity and the church and weakens its role in society. Under an Islamic state it can be completely different because the main function of the Islamic state is to protect religion, not to restrict it.”
More typical are Copts who wish to cooperate with Islamists but due to necessity. Among these is Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani.
“In order to keep any vicious Islamist appetite at bay we must stay at the table with them and remind them they promised not to hijack Egypt.”
Unlike Philopater, Sidhom has a degree of trust in the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who through his interactions with them finds them to be decent people.
“I believe the Brotherhood wants to prove they can create a form of democracy that respects the rights of all Egyptians.”
Similar to Social Democrat Gad, however, Sidhom is prepared.
“Our Plan B if Islamist groups seek an Islamic state is to oppose their constitution in a referendum, but if it is accepted, Copts and liberal Muslims – 40 percent of the population – will take again to the streets.”
All Politics is Local
While these responses are varied, it is “the street” that decides. This is not the street of Tahrir Square, but the poor, crowded neighborhoods in every city of Egypt.
In Warrak, a suburb of Cairo, Shadia Bushra, a 45 year old Coptic widow, cast her vote for the Freedom and Justice Party.
“I don’t know much about politics, but I followed the general view of the neighborhood.”
It did not hurt that when her local church failed to intervene to defend her rights in a property dispute, Essam Sharif, her Salafi neighbor and a leader in the Nour Party stood by her side, retained a lawyer, and helped win the judgment against wealthier Christian neighbors.
“I told her I would have done the same if she was opposed by Muslims,” stated Sharif.
Stated Islamist commitment to the rights of all has also won support from Copts in Maghagha, a small city in Upper Egypt. Sheikh Hamdi Abdel Fattah is a candidate for the Nour Party.
“I will consider myself the candidate of Christians ahead of Muslims, even if they do not vote for me. As such, I have to demand their rights. This is both democracy and Shari’ah law.”
Father Yu’annis is a Coptic Orthodox priest in Maghagha and has campaigned openly for Abdel Fattah.
“I don’t support him as a Salafi or as a Muslim, but as a person. He is from our village and I hope all Salafis will be like him.”
Yet he is pragmatic as well. “If we see more than two-thirds of the people are for an Islamic state we cannot stop them from having it, so as the Egyptian proverb says, ’With him who wins, play with him’. I must do my village duty to stand by him, so he won’t say I caused him to lose, and if he wins, he will be thankful.”
The seismic politic changes in Egypt during the past 12 months are still underway. Copts and others fill this resulting uncertainty with fears and expectations in wildly different directions.
Essam Thabit, a Coptic school teacher in Maghagha, believes all will be well. “Whoever comes to power will make sure they treat Christians better than the old regime, even though they know Christians won’t vote for them. I expect many churches to be built.”
His Coptic colleague Yasser Tekla from the neighboring city of Beni Mazar expects, and oddly welcomes, the worst. “I will vote for the Salafis now so they will come to power and people will see them truly, and then reject them afterwards.”
Many Copts hesitated during the revolution, while others joined wholeheartedly. The initial celebrations of Tahrir – where Muslims and Christians alternated protecting each other at prayer – have been followed by multiple instances of bloody sectarian conflict.
This has prompted Copts to ask themselves hard questions: Should Copts take refuge in the military council against Islamists, or with Islamists against the military-as-old-regime? Should they enter the political arena and trust its processes, or enter their churches and trust in God?
So far, clear answers to these questions seem beyond the reach of Egypt’s Christian minority.