Egypt’s Christians in a 'Wait-and-See' Mode
Uncertainty from presidential election puts Copts on edge.
The fact that not all the votes had been counted before Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for the Egyptian presidency, declared victory on Monday was of little comfort to the country’s sizeable Christian minority, which fears an Islamic takeover.
The uncertainty surrounding the election — by Tuesday, both Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, the former prime minister and Morsi’s old-guard competitor, said they had won — has left Egyptians, and especially the country’s 8 million to 10 million Coptic Christians, deeply worried about the future.
The presidential runoff was the final step in an exhausting months-long election process that followed the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak by pro-democracy protesters during the 2011 Arab Spring revolution.
Tensions over the weekend were already high after the Military Council, which took control of the country after Mubarak was toppled, dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament. The generals, who are identified with the politically corrupt, iron-fisted regime that oppressed citizens for 30 years are, if anything, even less popular than the Muslim Brotherhood.
Analysts predict that whoever becomes president will have to deal not only with the country’s stumbling economy, but also with factions deeply at odds with one another.
Egypt’s Christians have even more to worry about. Christians already experience discrimination in many spheres, albeit in a quiet, unofficial way, and have been subjected to repeated attacks by Islamic extremists, That said, “things could become much worse,” said Ron Shaham, a historian of Islam and professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
“If the Muslim Brothers win, they won’t implement a formal policy of discrimination against the Copts,” Shaham predicted, “but they can still make their lives miserable by closing them off from jobs, government permits, land allocation and issues related to worship.”
In a phone interview with the Register, Michael Meunier, the Cairo-based founder of the Copt Al-Haya political party, said “most Egyptians” are “terrified” by Morsi becoming president.
“People understand the Brotherhood doesn’t believe in democracy or liberty or working with other political forces. They ultimately want to turn Egypt into a Muslim state, a new emirate, with Jerusalem as its capital. But the majority of Egyptians, including Muslims, don’t want the country run by sharia (Islamic) law or to fight with their neighbors. They want a stable Egypt with a strong economy.”
In a recent New York Times column, political analyst Thomas Friedman said that Egypt today “has only two predators: poverty and illiteracy.” After 30 years of Mubarak rule and some $50 billion in U.S. aid, “33% of men and 56% of women in Egypt still can’t read or write.”
Meanwhile, continued political unrest and violence have depressed the tourism industry, which is a cornerstone of the Egyptian economy. It has also scared away foreign investors.
“Clearly, our economy and political stability are our first priorities,” Meunier said. “The Brotherhood has no experience running an entire country.”
Copts in particular fear for their jobs, Meunier said.
“When [the Islamists] dominated the parliament, they did not introduce any legislation to ease anti-Christian discrimination, and we fear that the Brotherhood will fill civil-service positions with their own supporters.”
Meunier said the election-monitoring room his party maintained throughout the weekend presidential runoff received “many” complaints from Christians related to intimidation.
“Brotherhood activists intimidated Christians in Upper Egypt not to cast a vote. They stood 100 meters outside the polling stations, on streets leading to the stations, and stopped them from entering.”
The politician said he had heard of the death of one Christian, from the town of Sohag in Upper Egypt, but this could not be confirmed.
According to Caroline Asaad of the Maspero Coptic Youths Federation, who was interviewed by the Worthy News website, Christians “have been bombarded by media accusations from the revolutionary youths and prominent Islamist leaders. Our friends at college, work and our neighbors all accuse the Egyptian Church of high treason by directing Copts to vote for Shafiq.”
Egyptian media also reported unseemly behavior by some of Shafiq’s supporters.
During a press conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a founding member of Hamas, an Islamic organization and Muslim Brotherhood offshoot the U.S. State Department has designated a terrorist organization, said, “There is no difference between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Yousef, whose journey from terrorist to Israeli spy and from Muslim to Christian is chronicled in his autobiography, Son of Hamas, predicted that the Middle East will experience “more terrorism, more extremism” if the Muslim Brotherhood takes control of Egypt.
The day before Yousef spoke, militants stationed in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, on territory Israel returned to Egypt as part of the nations’ peace treaty, fired rockets into Israel. The next day, Hamas did the same from the Gaza Strip.
Thoughts of Emigrating
Despite the stated desire of some Muslim Brotherhood leaders to make Egyptian society more conservative, insular and Muslim, Shaham predicted that the country’s generals are unlikely to let this happen.
“I don’t believe the [secular] Egyptian army will allow the Brotherhood to complete their political aims. I assume there will be some equilibrium between the army and the Brotherhood and that there won’t be a sharia state in the near future,” Shaham said.
Asked whether he and other Christians are contemplating emigration, Meunier said the subject is on the minds of many.
“People own businesses, factories. Everyone is waiting on important decisions in their personal lives and on the results of the election. And many of us have Muslim friends who are also worried.”
Right now, Meunier said, “it’s wait and see.”
Register Middle East correspondent Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.