Egypt Copts react to Islamist electoral win

Yasmine Fathi , Sunday 4 Dec 2011

For Egypt's Coptic Christians, the win of the Islamists at the ballot box was no surprise. Opinion is divided, however, on how to react: stay and fight for equal rights, or leave

Egyptian Copts carry a cross, a picture showing saints along a banner in Arabic that reads 'God is our shelter and strength, he will help us in hard times,' during a protest in downtown Cairo in March (Photo:AP)

It is an understatement to say that 2011 has been a difficult year for Egypt’s exhausted Christians.

It began with the bombing of the Two Saints Church, only minutes after the New Year started, and culminated in the victory of Islamists with more than half of the parliament in the first phase of the elections.

Indeed, according to the latest results, the Muslim Brotherhood’s newly licensed Freedom and Justice Party won no less than 40 per cent of the seats, while the Salafist El-Nour Party won 20 per cent of the seats. And this is only the first phase, which covered nine of the country’s governorates. There are two more phases before a final picture of the first post-Mubarak regime can be drawn.

If the first phase results are anything to go by, Islamists will be the overwhelming majority in the next parliament. This outcome, which was expected, has still left the Coptic community reeling.

It has been a year where Coptic churches were burned by Salafist groups, where residents of the southern city of Qena demonstrated and blocked the city’s highways to protest the appointed of a Coptic governor, where Copts repeatedly took to the street to protest increasing discrimination and where deadly clashes between Coptic protesters and the army left at least 28 dead in what became known as the “Maspero massacre,” taking place in front of the State TV building in Maspero.

It’s also been a year where various Islamists speaking on TV shows called Christians kafirs (heretics) and insisted that they should pay the jizya (Islamic fine for non-Muslims), pushing Egypt’s Christians to spiral into an even more intense wave of panic.

Now, however, speaking to Ahram Online, various faces of Egypt’s Christian population talk about their fears, aspirations and predictions of how life under an Islamic dominated parliament will be for them.

Father Filopater Gameel, a Coptic priest, and a leading member of the Maspero Youth Union and eyewitness to the Maspero massacre.

"I am not surprised that the Islamists won the parliament majority. There were many hints in recent months that they were going to easily win many seats. The fact that they were insisting that the elections take place while all the other political forces were pleading that the elections be postponed hints that both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists made a deal with the military council.

"The elections were filled with rigging and violations. The Supreme Electoral Committee (SEC) has already announced that many ballot boxes will be disregarded because concerns that they were rigged. We also saw violations in terms of niqabis (fully veiled women) entering the polling stations and refusing to identify themselves so that they can keep entering the station and vote more than once. We’ve also heard of cases were the Salafist El-Nour Party blocked the door to the polling stations, so that any voter going in would have to pass by them first, which is actually against the law that bans campaigning in front of polling stations.

Also, during the electoral process there was heavy usage of religious slogans and mosques were used for campaigns and to promote the Islamists.

"The Islamists were pushing for the elections even when the martyrs blood had not yet dried in Tahrir Square and Maspero. But we Copts now insist on continuing the electoral process until the end. The Copts are flexible and are able to adapt to any regime. We tasted bitter medicine during the Mubarak regime and we will probably face more of that under the rule of the Islamists.

"The Copts will be the voice in Egypt that will continue to call for freedom, equality and a civil state. We will remain here and continue the fight for the beautiful and ancient Egyptian civilisation.

"I do not agree with the decision of many Copts to emigrate or flee the country because the Islamists won. This is passive. I think those who leave will be very few. Mass emigration, I believe, will not take place and Egypt will always have its Christians.

"The biggest problem I have with the Islamists is that they are unclear and have many faces. They say one thing and then later deny it, and when people lie you cannot trust them. I think it also shows that we replaced the Mubarak dictatorship with a new dictatorship, but this time it is religious.

"We Copts will never forget the role Islamists played in the massacre of the country’s pigs in 2009 after the swine flu scare in the country. Most of the pigs are owned by Copts.  We still have very painful memories of this. They killed these innocent pigs just because they thought they violated their religion in some way.

"However, we Copts will not give up. We will continue in the struggle for our freedom in Tahrir Square and all other squares in the country."

Tharwat Bassily, a prominent Coptic businessman.

"I think it is too early to judge either how the Islamists will rule or how the Copts will react. We have heard a lot of theoretical arguments from them, but we still need to see what they will do practically. If they ensure that the parliament and its laws remain balanced and representative of the different factions of the Egyptian people, then that is great. However, if they give every law a religious twist then that is not okay.

"There is a lot of panic now in the Coptic community. This panic is a result of fear of the unknown. What we as Copts and Egyptians in general are experiencing is very new. We have never been through this before. However, if the Islamists show that they are fair then maybe this fear can dim in the coming few months.

"But I really believe that the Egyptians are at the end of their tether. If they start walking in the street and telling women to wear the veil and men to grow their beard, I think they will get a very negative reaction.

"We cannot have laws that do not fit the century we live in. The question is, are we going to be a free and democratic like the US and other European countries or are we going in the way of Iran and Afghanistan and other religious states? I believe that Egyptians will not allow anyone to control them like in these two countries."

Sameh Fawzy, political analyst.

"I think some segments of the Coptic population are terrified. But then again there are some segments of the Muslim population who are also panicking. This is expected.
I believe that the Muslim Brotherhood did not win because the Egyptians were conservative or were looking specifically for Islamists; no, I think there are other reasons. These include the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has been there for decades, are experienced and know how to monopolise people to get enough votes to win. They Brotherhood are also popular among the people, because they used to fight the hated Mubarak regime. The Brotherhood also know how to work on the streets and reach out to the people and have been doing so while other political forces in the country have been fighting over imaginary issues like whether Egypt should be secular or religious.

"However, the Islamists are not very good at public policies. They have popular awareness but not social awareness. I believe that they will focus much of their time in parliament talking about issues like gender mixing and will push the Egyptians into a tunnel of irrelevant battles which may end up contributing to the fact that they will lose in the following elections.

"On the other hand, we used to deal with political Islam as a body under the sea and where we could only see the head. Now, the whole body has been lifted out of the water and we see it all. This means that a last we know who we are dealing with and whereas before the battle was ideological, now it is political."

Mina Sabet, activist and member of the Maspero Youth Union.

"I am not worried or scared. I have no fear. The revolution has taught the Egyptian people that that they have a voice and if the Islamists do not perform well the people will revolt against them.

"Egyptians are religious people and the Islamists always used the religion card to emotionally manipulate them. This is something they excel at.

"They also know how to get people’s support. For example, an old man I know voted for the Freedom and Justice Party and when I asked him why, he said that he needed surgery and the candidate promised him that he will help him get the medical help he needs. This is how they get the support of the people.

"If the Egyptian people chose the Islamist trend, then fine. We asked for the constitution first and they diverted our attention away from this. The crisis now is the constitution.
I don’t think the new parliament will issue any laws to help the Christians. But then again, neither did the interim government of former Prime Minister Essam Sahraf. He promised both an anti-discrimination law and a law to organise the building of churches and yet nothing came out of either.

"It’s too late now to talk about why the Islamists won. They did and now we have to face it. The youth, who actually started this revolution, were never given the time or the chance to win seats in the parliament and this is something we need to focus on in the next few months. The youths of the revolution need to go to the street and try and gain popular support so we can fight this and have a different parliament next time."

Emile Amin, writer.

"We cannot put all the Copts together. The Coptic population is diverse. You have the thinkers, philosophers and academics and for them the victory of the Islamists is nothing more than a political transformation that can change in the future. For this group, what happened is not the end of the world. The second group is the workers class. They are ones who are terrified the most, because they are the ones who face discrimination every day in the street, supermarket or metro. The third group is made up of the poor and for them it doesn’t matter if it is Islamists or non-Islamists who take over power. They are living below the poverty line and are too troubled to care.

"At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who wins, but rather how will the winners behave. 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. 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.

"None of the Copts are against the fact that Egypt has a Muslim undercurrent. After all, this is a Muslim and not a Christian or Jewish country. None of the Copts have a problem with Article 2 of the constitution, which says that Sharia is the main source of legislation. However, if they start applying it on Christians, instead of letting them revert to their own religious teachings, then I expect there will be trouble.

"If they start applying systematic discrimination against Copts, then you will get two forms of responses. These include daily clashes in the street and mass emigration. They are both terrible and we don’t want that.

"The massacre of the Armenians, which took place in Turkey, will not be repeated in Egypt. I am not saying that the Islamists will massacre the Copts. I don’t think the Freedom and Justice Party or El-Nour leaders are violent or bloodthirsty. However, you can always get a group of passionate supporters who get too excited and start fights with Christians in the streets, which can then turn deadly.

"I am worried also about the violent groups who are linked to Al-Qaeda who will sponge off the presence of the Islamists in parliament. What if all of a sudden the supporters of Hamas use the power of the Islamists and end up all over Egypt?

"The Copts, however, do not on live an island by themselves. They are Egyptians and like the rest of their countrymen they have questions they want answered. For example, what is the future of investment in the country? What will they do to the tourism sector and what will become of Egypt’s relationship with Israel?

"At the end of the day, the upcoming parliament is going to represent a historical milestone for Egypt. We shouldn’t be so quick to judge and fear. This phobia should be eliminated and after hearing about Islamists and the threat of Islamists for years, maybe it is time we just step back and watch them in action and then we can react."

Beshoy Tamry is Coptic activist, member of the Maspero Youth Union, and lost his friend Mina Daniel during the Maspero clashes.

"The victory of the Islamists was completely expected. The way the military council has administered this period has signaled the advancement of the Islamists. They were doing everything they can to ensure their victory. In some cases, they put constituencies with high Christian population with other constituencies that were not geographically close but had a high level of Islamists, just to ensure that the Christian voices are drowned out and the Islamists win regardless.

"Since the attacks on Copts began in the past few months, many Christians have been thinking of emigrating. Now, after the victory of the Islamists, these plans will become reality and many Christians are already packing their bags. However, there is another group, which includes the Christian revolutionaries, who are adamant to stay in Egypt and continue the fight. This includes me and my friends. We will struggle, we will fight. Our hope now is in Egypt's moderate Muslims. They are the ones who will be able to support us and our fight for a civil state."

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