‘The ultimate fear’: Copts look for a footing on Egypt's political landscape
Dina Ezzat, Friday 16 Oct 2015
For some Copts running for parliament, the time ahead should be one of consolidation, not addressing the panoply of Coptic grievances, or asking too much of the state

In the coming two days, Mina Fhami and Raguei Fouad will be doing their final rallying tours ahead of the first-phase of voting in parliamentary elections that will start Saturday for Egyptians overseas, and take place on two days domestically starting Sunday.

Fahmi is running on the Nida’ Misr (Egypt’s Calling) list contesting 11 governorates in the elections first phase. Fouad is running on the independent quota of Egyptian Liberals Party in the electoral district of Samalout in the governorate of Minya.

The last rallying calls that both parliamentary candidates are planning, they told Ahram Online, will be based on promises to improve the quality of lives of those who will vote for them, not just in terms of essential and highly compromised services, but also in terms of legislation that would make the lives of their constituents easier and less hazardous.

“I am not directly approaching the limited issues of Coptic rights; I am not running as a representative of the Copts I am trying to represent in parliament. I am running to be an MP who would be there for all members of his constituency and for all Egyptians in general. The issue of rights and/or grievances of Copts is not independent from the entire mandate of an MP who has to worry about the rights and problems of the people in general,” said Fahmi.

Having been party to the incremental state of political activism that started with wide inclusion of young men and women in 2005, Fouad had been since trying to influence the political and socio-economic face of life in Egypt. He joined the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) before he moved on as he felt that political parties "are simply incapable" of representing either the population in general or the youth.

Fahmi is convince that the current moment is essential in shaping the future of all Egyptians, “Yes, Copts included.” Fahmi is one of nine Coptic members on the electoral list Nida’ Misr.

Electoral law requires that each list include nine Copts — a positive discrimination mechanism that sets quotas for all minorities.

Included is the list of the Salafist Nour Party whose leaders have shared publicly their unease on the requirement to include Copts in all electoral lists.

Accordingly, the next parliament should have at least have 24 Copts out of some 600 seats. The number could be relatively higher with possible electoral victories of those running for independent seats, like Fouad.

“There are good chances for people like me to get elected because I am not running on the basis of faith but on the basis of awareness of the problems facing my district. When I speak to people in my district, they realise that I am fully aware of the fact that we don’t have an operating hospital and that we suffer serious water pollution problems, among other things,” Fouad said.

Fouad had previously been a member of the pre-25 January Revolution ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). He is convinced, he told Ahram Online, that his constituency is not holding this against him, much as they are not, “for the most part,” apprehensive about electing him, “despite the incitement by some,” regardless of his faith.

“I am fully aware that as a society we still have a long way to go with education, awareness and legislation before we are capable of making our choices for MPs on strict political merit. But I am convinced that one of the results of 30 June (the nationwide demonstrations led to the ouster of elected president Mohamed Morsi, the first Muslim Brotherhood member to make it to the top executive job) is that the need for wider inclusion of Copts in the public sphere has been recognised by the masses and the state,” Fouad said.

It would have been counterproductive to this “positive spirit,” he argued, for parliamentary candidates who are Copts to "indulge” in Coptic grievances.

Neither Fahmi nor Fouad had marked, in their campaigning tours, the fourth anniversary of the carnage of 9 October 2011 (known as the Maspero massacre) that saw excessive force used on Copts protesting a sequence of attacks on Coptic churches under the eyes of the ears of the state. Military police and soldiers involved had allegedly been “pressured and attacked” by the demonstrators, according to the military line at the time.

In the course of the past four years, argues Ishak Ibrahim, head of the religious freedoms desk at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, no serious legal action was taken to either reveal the full the truth of happened on that day or to reassure the families of the 25 people killed that evening that wrong-doers were held legally accountable and punished.

“We were told that three soldiers were brought to a military court and that of these two were given sentences of two years in jail each and one to three years behind bars. But beyond this we don’t know much and we have no firm assurances that these sentences were served,” Ibrahim said.

He added that the TV anchor who on that day called on “honourable Egyptians to go take the side of the army” against Coptic demonstrators was never properly penalised, despite the direct involvement in “incitement.”

Neither Fouad nor Fahmi were planning to make the issue of alleged impunity in the Maspero case a matter to take to the next parliament.

“The issue was dealt with in a legal process and the legal process should be completed if there is more to do,” said Fahmi.

For his part, Fouad stressed that “it is clear that there was a third party involved,” in indirect reference to Islamists — especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to Fouad, “Now that [president Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi has removed the Muslim Brotherhood, we need to move on.” “Whatever we do, we have to make sure not take any action, under any name, to undermine our state institutions, especially the key state institutions,” Fouad added.

Member of the Maspero Youth Coalition and of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, Mina Thabet, insists that “four years later and with YouTube and many other recordings of what really happened there” available, clear and transparent action should have been taken.

Like other rights activists, Thabet insists that whatever negative sentiments the Muslim Brotherhood had against Copts during the one-year rule of Mohamed Morsi, and whatever grievances that Copts suffered during that year, including the unprecedented attack on the Coptic Cathedral, “Maspero cannot be put at the doorstep of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“We know exactly who did it and we don’t need to guess. We know and we have the documentation that cannot be refuted,” Thabet said.

At her elegantly furnished Garden City apartment overlooking the Nile, Therese, an elderly lady, took a sip of tea before she announced that “The martyrs of Maspero are now in heaven and there is no point in getting too much involved in the past. We need to move on and make sure that these sad things don’t happen again.”

“The past four years were very difficult and there was so much confusion. But now we are going to have a new parliament and we just need to make sure that there is legislation to deal with the root cause there,” Wadie said.

“People are moving beyond the Maspero incident, which is perhaps the most dramatic but not the only attack that Copts have suffered during the past few years — even before the January Revolution,” Ibrahim argued. He hastened to add: "However, they did not put it behind them.”

According to Thabet, this is “probably an inevitable outcome of this overwhelming sentiment that Copts have of being caught between a rock and a hard place.”

“Most Copts, irrespective of socio-economic or political backgrounds, feel that whatever the unfairness they live with, it is better than having the Muslim Brotherhood back in office. And in fact, many make a direct association between the Islamists in Egypt with ISIS (the Islamic State),” he explained.

“God forbid! We should never have the Muslim Brotherhood ever again and we should never ever do anything that would weaken our army — the only remaining strong army in this region,” Wadie said.

Wadie is not willing to go as far as Pope Tawadros II alleged last year on the anniversary of the carnage, when he blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for “having been behind” the massacre as they “incited” Coptic activists to go into a confrontation with the military police.

“That was an absolute insult to the activists and to the many Copts who joined the march on that day, and the very legitimate cause of protesting the attacks on our churches,” said Ramy Kamil, also a member of the Maspero Youth and a prominent activist.

Kamil blames the Church for suggesting to Egyptian Copts to move “back and not on”: that the Church wants to go back to the pre-25 January Revolution era, whereby the president has good relations with the patriarch and the Church becomes the representative of all Copts.

For the community of Coptic activists this unacceptable equation effectively reduces Copts to second class citizens — a community within the state that has to hide behind the walls of the Church.

Thabet was particularly disappointed that Pope Tawadros II, who left on an overseas visit shortly before the Maspero anniversary, did not even send an envoy to the mass held last Friday.

“But we are there to remember, and to mark the day,” he said.

Thabet, Kamil and others went in the evening before to Maspero (the State Television building in Cairo) and marked the day with red balloons carrying the names of all the victims of the carnage that happened four years ago.

According to Ibrahim, the limited presence at the event should not be taken as an indication that Copts have either forgotten or forgiven.

“The fact that they do not talk about it on a large scale in public is not an indicator that they don’t talk about it amongst themselves —as about other disappointments, including the continued failure of the state to issue fair regulations for the construction and reconstruction of churches, which is something that has been promised over and over again,” he said.

Fouad and Fahmi said that this matter would be on the list of issues they wish to "eventually" bring to the attention of parliament when it convenes.

Ibrahim is sceptical, nonetheless on whether the next parliament would act promptly to resolve this prominent grievance, “which still would not remedy the pain of the killing of Egyptian Copts at the hands of officers from the army, which called up the pain of collective Coptic consciousness about the long exclusion of Copts from the Egyptian army until the late 19th century.”

The pain will continue to be subdued, Ibrahim suggested, but “not forever."

“For now, most Copts are still under the euphoria of have been 'liberated’ from the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood by El-Sisi, who was the first president to attend a Christmas mass,” Ibrahim argued.

However, by the time of the fifth anniversary of Maspero, he added, it would be two years after the election of the "saviour-president" and one year after the election of the legislature.

“If nothing serious is done by then to remedy the grievances of discrimination that Copts complain about, this sentiment of euphoria would fast subside, and they would bypass their present ultimate fear — the possible rule of Islamists again,” he concluded.