Egypt’s presidential elections and the Copts
The electoral results have plunged part of this country, especially its Christian community, into uncertainty.
Eighteen months have passed since the revolution on Tahrir Square and President Mubarak’s resignation that came soon after. Since then, a lengthy and complicated electoral process has ensued, resulting in the election of a President of the Egyptian Republic, but one without either a Parliament or even a Constitution!
In fact, on Sunday 24 June, after numerous delays the official results were finally declared. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, emerged as the winner of the second round of presidential elections. But these electoral results have plunged a part of the country, especially the Christian Community, into uncertainty. Between 8% and 10% of Egyptians belong to the Coptic Christian community, which makes the Copts the largest Christian minority in the Middle East.
After several months of political, social and economic instability, and while everybody thought the painful and long drawn-out electoral process had finally staggered across the finishing line in mid-June, the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved de facto the recently elected Parliament by declaring that almost one-third of the seats had been won illegally.
During the general election, the political parties were supposed to have presented their candidates for two-thirds of the seats while the other third had been reserved for independent candidates. But it turned out that quite a number of these ‘independent’ candidates had been sponsored by political parties and would therefore have been elected in an unconstitutional manner.
The first to feel the effects of this decision were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who protested vigorously, given that they had won a large majority of Parliamentary seats.
Earlier, during the month of April, the Committee responsible for drafting the new Egyptian Constitution had been dissolved. Both Christians and Muslims of moderate and liberal views had boycotted this Committee because, in their opinion, it was supposed to represent the diversity of the nation. But for their part the Islamists declared that it had to reflect the composition of the Parliament, and so they used their victory in the parliamentary ballot to dominate the committee.
On the other hand, as far as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was concerned, there was a promise here to hand over power, as had been agreed previously, at the end of June, but some people still harboured suspicions that this would be a lengthy process.
Engagement of the Copts
What is certain is that the Christians had taken an active part in the Egyptian Revolution. Despite the years of political decline brought about by the marginalisation of the Coptic community, and despite the appeals issued by Pope Shenouda III (who died in February 2012) to the Copts to stay away from the protests, they believed that the moment had finally come for their voice to be heard.
But what are the Copts demanding? In the first place they are calling for religious freedom, including freedom to build and repair places of worship; they also demand to be treated as equal citizens and a balanced social, professional and political representation. They no longer wish to be treated like second-class citizens, or have protected status, but would like rather to enjoy the same rights as their Muslim fellow-citizens.
During the first round of the presidential elections, the Copts had been accused of betraying the Revolution by voting for Ahmed Shafik, a military man and former Prime Minister under Mubarak. Following an official counting of the votes cast, it turned out that the towns that had voted for Shafik happened to be located in the four Delta governorates: Sharkiya, Gharbiya, Menoufiyah and Dakahliya, all areas with low numbers of Copts. By contrast, the areas containing much larger numbers of Christians had voted during the first round mainly for the socialist/Nasserist candidate, Hamdeen Sabbahi, who came third in the first round. At all events, the Coptic community emerged from its lethargy.
The Coptic ‘awakening’
Since January 2011 we have witnessed a ‘Coptic awakening’.
It did not take them long to get to Tahrir and they took part in the demonstrations as much in this emblematic gathering place as in their home districts, waving religious symbols and even praying publicly in Tahrir Square. All dissension and tensions appeared to be snuffed out, at least for the moment !
On the other hand, many Copts actively supported the campaign for the suppression of the mention of religious denomination on national identity cards. They have also voted in huge numbers in the constitutional referendum designed to amend the Constitution, and also in the first round of the presidential elections and the general elections.
To sum up, the Copts, like the rest of the Egyptian population, have been shaken out of their political lethargy.
But events have not always happened in such a peaceful manner. The most well-known uprising in the Coptic community was the peaceful Maspero demonstration in October 2011, which had a tragic end due to military suppression and causing dozens of protesters died. As a result of the Revolution, and taking advantage of the chaos and the reigning insecurity, the Copts have witnessed a marked outbreak of religious sectarian violence. Several churches have been burned down, Coptic families have been chased out of their homes in more than eight towns and villages. There have also been inter-community confrontations where the local police forces either refused to intervene or, worse still, intervened in a totally impartial manner.
Salafi preachers, banned by the Mubarak regime from appearing on national TV programmes, are now given air time for their sermons advocating religious intolerance and targeting non-Muslims and non-believers
The Christian community lives in a climate of insecurity and anxiety made worse by the frequency of recent confrontations, by the lack of action from local police forces in the best of cases, by judicial rulings coming down far heavier on them than on their Muslim fellow-citizens, and also by the inflammatory speeches of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Future prospects for the Copts?
It is still too early to assess the impact on Egyptian society, especially on the Christian community, resulting from the election of Mohamed Morsi as President of the Republic. For the time being, without a Parliament, without a Constitution and with the recent amendments passed by the SCAF, he does not have a sufficiently large margin of manoeuvre to be able to take any radical decisions or to pass laws that would be unacceptable for the SCAF. He has no choice but to cooperate with the military. But there again, it is absolutely legitimate to wonder just how far the military are ready to make concessions in order to maintain their privileges. And above all, to wonder whether the Copts would not be the victims of the tensions between the army and Mohamed Morsi, who has no qualms about saying one thing while meaning another. On the one hand he sees himself pacifying the Christian population with promises of even electing a Copt as Vice-President, while on the other hand he makes fiery speeches about the application of Sharia law.
Any scenario is possible, but what we know for certain is that a major part of the population is worried about the changes in their personal status or in society in the near or mid-term future.
This is also a new pivotal point in Egyptian history. Now that people are enjoying free speech, it will be difficult to muzzle them again!
Spécialiste de l'Egypte, Egyptian affairs correspondent
ERASMUS Researcher – Paris 8 University
Translated from the original text in French