Egypt’s Christian leaders urged their faithful to vote in the second phase of their country’s national elections, held this week, after two Islamic parties won nearly 70% of the contested seats in the first round of voting. 

“Most of the Church authorities have been encouraging the Christians to vote because it is their duty and their privilege,” Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the apostolic nuncio, said in a phone interview from his office in Cairo. “The results of the first round were not always encouraging; [and] there is the feeling that every vote counts.”

The Muslim Brotherhood won 47% of the contested seats, while the party of ultra conservative Salafist Muslims scored 21%.
By all accounts, Egypt’s Christians (the vast majority of them Copts, including 250,000 Catholics), who comprise about 10 million of Egypt’s 82 million citizens, fear that a sweeping Islamic victory could have dire consequences for their community — the largest Christian community in the Middle East.

“We fool ourselves if we think the Islamists will give Christians more rights or freedoms,” Joe Fahim, a film critic who is Christian, told Reuters prior to the second round of voting. “Many of my Christian friends fear for the future and what will happen if the Brotherhood and Salafists govern Egypt. Many are thinking of leaving the country.”

The Egyptian Federation of Human Rights estimates that roughly 93,000 Copts have left Egypt during the past nine months, while Naguib Gibrael, the Coptic Orthodox Church’s lawyer, believes as many as 100,000 Christian families have fled Egypt since the January 2011 revolution toppled the reign of President Hosni Mubarak, The New York Times reported.

Asked if either of these figures was accurate, Archbishop Fitzgerald said the Church “does not have any numbers.” 

While it is far too early to know what the election’s outcome will be, many observers predict wide-scale Christian emigration if the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists form a coalition government and force more moderate, non-Islamic parties to the sidelines in the opposition.

“The Christians have that to worry about,” said Gabriel Warburg, an expert in Islam and Egyptian nationalism at Israel’s Haifa University. “It can be hoped that the Muslim Brotherhood will align itself with liberal parties.” Should that happen, a democratic society could develop, Warburg said.

But if the Brotherhood, which says it wants to create a democracy based on Islamic values, aligns itself with the Salafists, “it could mean a real suppression of Christianity. It could be a real setback. The Copts have already been under almost constant attack,” Warburg said.

Chance to Prove Themselves

Violent attacks aimed at Christians and church institutions occurred even while Mubarak was in power, despite the fact that the ousted president imprisoned thousands of activists from the Muslim Brotherhood and outlawed all Islamic political parties.

There have been additional attacks against Christians since Mubarak’s departure, fueled largely by anti-Christian pronouncements in the mosques and the media. 

In October, during a Copt protest over a Muslim attack against a church in Aswan, Egyptian security forces clashed with the protesters, killing 26 Copts and wounding 300.

Because he ruled with an iron fist, “Mubarak actually gave to Egyptians in general, and Christians in particular, military protection,” Warburg said. “That’s what they’re looking for now.”

Without such protection from the future Egyptian government, whatever form it takes, Egypt’s Christians could go the way of Lebanon’s Maronites, the majority of whom have emigrated. And hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled war-torn Iraq.

Ed Husain, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on the council’s website that non-Muslims would be particularly at risk if the Salafists are allowed to influence areas of public life. 

Most Salafists, Husain said, “aim to emulate the first century of Islam.” Like the American Amish, he said, they dress modestly, have long beards, practice “social separatism” and mandate a “homemaker” role for women.

But that’s where the similarity ends. While the Amish cling to their traditions in their own communities, Husain said, Salafists want to impose sharia [Islamic] law throughout Egypt and the rest of the world. The type of Islam Salafists practice “manifest[s] hatred of non-Muslims,” he said. 

“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who wins, but rather how will the winners behave,” Emile Amin, a Copt writer, told the Egyptian press agency Ahram Online.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists “have a golden opportunity to show that they are good and to shoot down all the accusations people have been hurling at them,” Amin said. “If they turn out to be good and indeed give us freedom and justice, then the Copts will be the first to vote for them in the next elections.”

Amin said Egyptian Christians don’t have a problem with Article 2 of the constitution, which says that sharia law is the underpinning of Egyptian law. “However,” Amin said ominously, “if they start applying it on Christians, instead of letting them revert to their own religious teachings, then I expect there will be trouble.”

Register correspondent Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.