Egypt elections obliterate Coptic voice

Yasmine El-Rashidi , Sunday 5 Dec 2010

Even with sweeping wins in the run-offs today, the voice of the Christian community has already been drained out of Egypt’s new parliament

Pope Shenouda III
Egypt's Patriarch Pope Shenouda III casting his ballot on 28 November. He has not said who he voted for.

Egypt’s minority Christian Coptic community know they are fighting a losing battle for political representation. In a best-case scenario following today’s run-offs they could end up with five seats, or one percent, in the incoming 508-seat parliament. In a worst-case scenario, they will end up with half that amount.

At the polls today, just two Coptic candidates are left in the running: the suave Wafdist multi-millionaire Ramy Lakah, and Sameh Sadek, a lesser-know figure with shallow pockets. Both these men – whose manifestos centre around calls for religious unity and an ‘Egypt for all’ – are running in Shubra, a largely working-class district in Cairo with a high Christian presence.

The possibility of another parliamentary seat secured by the Copts today, possibly lies in the hands of the lesser-known Sadek, a member of the Democratic Front Party who is running as an independent. His opponent, Lakah – a big man with the vocal leverage of money as well as ideas – has allegedly withdrawn from the run-offs, but even if he has a change of mind as candidates are known to do, he is likely to be kept out of the parliamentary chambers, following the footsteps of equally prominent, equally surprising, losers this year, such as secretary general of the liberal Wafd party Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour.

For Egypt’s Copts, who officially make up between six to ten percent of the country’s 80 million population, this election year has been a brutal one. Long the subject of alleged persecution and marginalization, the election run-up was marred with markers of the endeavoured annihilation they have been crying foul against for years.

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) fielded just 10 Coptic candidates out of if its 780 nominees vying for the 508 available seats this year. Of a total 5,725 candidates running for election, just 81 – less than 2 percent – were Copts. This official selection, which was confirmed a couple of weeks before the 28 November first election round, irked the Coptic community. Former Coptic MP Mona Makram Ebeid called the choice “political”, and in Alexandria, members of the community publicly spoke out in critique of the NDP for failing to fairly consider the estimated 690 names put forward by the Coptic Church.

Then, just days before the election, clashes broke out between anti-riot police and the Coptic community of Omraneya in the Pyramids district of Cairo. The government had ordered a halt on construction work on a community building, saying that the construction permit was for a “community centre”, not a “church”. Residents claim the tension broke out over the construction of a staircase, not the dome that the police alleged.

Demonstrators subsequently surrounded the premises, protesting the construction halt and what they criticized as part of widespread government-supported alienation and persecution. The riots, which saw police fire tear-gas and rubber pellets, ended with two dead, dozens injured, 133 arrested, and 156 people facing charges with possible maximum sentences of life in jail. The government’s NDP spokesman Ali El-Din Hilal said the Copts incited the conflict, placing the blame on them. Egypt’s Patriarch Pope Shenouda III immediately denounced the violence. He has not, to-date, responded to the outcome of the elections, and his office is not offering comment.

Although some of the country’s most prominent businessmen and Ministers are Coptic – including Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros Ghali, who was re-elected for a second parliamentary term this year  –  persecution among the population’s majority middle and lower working class has been widespread. 

In January of this year, on the eve of the Copts’ Christmas of January 7th, a drive-by shooting in the southern town of Naga Hamadi killed 8 Copts as they were leaving Church following mass. The court hearing against the three Muslims charged in the case is scheduled for 18 December. Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights, has said that, “the Coptic community is vulnerable and exposed to sectarian violence”.

Critics had cited the lack of Coptic representation in this year’s elections as yet another antic by the government to suppress voices of opposition and maintain the status quo. Coptic representation fell even lower than that of women – this year close to 130 women ran for seats. It also fell at almost fifty percent of Muslim Brotherhood representation – 130 Muslim Brotherhood candidates also campaigned for parliamentary election.

With the outcome of the first election round last week, however, the predicament of the Copts has taken new dimension. The ruling party pulverized all but the meekest voices in a political landscape long governed by limited pluralism: They won 209 seats of the 217 designated, leaving the Brotherhood with not a single one. Although Coptic representation in the incoming parliament will fall well below the 10 percent that would most fairly reflect the public demographic and voice, the outcome yields to the general quandary of representation that has beleaguered this year’s election results.

“This year is a bad one for the Copts,” said Michael Mounir, president of the US-based Copts Association and a long-time lobbyist for Coptic and minority rights and representation. “But it is also a bad one for everyone else. The government has gone the extra mile to annihilate everyone.”

Mounir, who this year trained and fielded eighteen minority candidates for the elections under the umbrella of an NGO for change, says on the one hand the situation is getting worse, “but in a way the reverse is also true: Copts, and minorities in general, have become more aware of their rights. Their voices are now present in politics, even if under-represented. That’s a step in the right direction.”

The question as to the future of the Coptic community is now the same one that faces the entire demographic of Egypt’s political landscape minus the NDP -- where to from here?

In the aftermath of an election fraught with reports of vote-rigging and violence plus the obliteration of any voices of dissent, the government faces perhaps its greatest crisis of legitimacy before both the international community and as well as its own 80 million population. It also faces its greatest ever cohort of aggrieved politicians and activists. It is in this chorus of dissent that the Copts may at last find their platform and strong-hold – amidst a community of mainstream and majority voices who face the same grievances as them. 

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