Egypt’s Copts feel neglected as election nears

Egypt’s Copts feel neglected as election nears

By Mohammed Abbas

CAIRO (Reuters) – Coptic Christians and Muslims clapped, cheered and beat drums at a rally for a Coptic candidate in Egypt’s November parliamentary elections, but amid talk of unity some spoke in hushed voices of sectarian tensions.

A Coptic candidate in Alexandria withdrew his name last month after three people were killed in anti-Christian riots in his constituency — an outburst of sectarian violence that some Copts say underlines their political isolation.

“Muslims threaten us every day with no reason…It’s gotten worse in the run-up to the elections. There are many Muslims and only a few Christians. So to get votes, Muslims attack Christians,” John Michael, 26, said at the rally.

For many Copts, this view is extreme, but some believe the government has neglected them to appease Islamists.

Analysts say Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood are the only serious political threat to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of President Hosni Mubarak.

“This situation is not balanced and not natural, that Christians are always overlooked…including the political sector,” said Coptic priest and former doctor Yohanna Naseef.

“The systematic exclusion is ruining the outcome for this country. The competition for any post should look at professional qualifications and not religion,” he added.

The perception of neglect by the state has, in turn, deterred many Copts from entering politics in the belief that their input would not be welcome.

Christians among the NDP’s list of candidates can be counted on one hand, although they account for up to 10 percent of the Egyptian population.


“Copts are not putting themselves forward in public life. They are not appreciated, nobody welcomes them. Why should they bother?” said prominent Coptic writer and thinker Milad Hanna.

The Christian detachment from politics is in stark contrast to the situation in the 1920s and 1930s, which many Egyptians consider one of their greatest political eras because Copts and Muslims worked together to end British occupation.

Cheers erupted at the election rally for Coptic candidate Mona Makram-Ebeid when her grandfather, nationalist politician William Makram-Ebeid, appeared in her campaign video.

In the first half of the 20th century, he was active in the then-powerful Wafd party and was seen as a great patriot. Copts then made up about 10 percent of parliament, Hanna said, roughly in line with their demographic weight.

“Now it’s almost zero percent. The texture of society and culture has changed…The government would like to have candidates from the Muslim community because they are the majority and they are the leaders,” Hanna added.

Although the government has banned the use of religious election slogans and rhetoric that could threaten national unity, Muslim Brotherhood election banners proclaiming “Islam is the solution” still dot many Cairo streets.

The organisation is officially outlawed but the authorities have given it unusual leeway in the run-up to the elections by releasing leaders from jail and allowing marches and meetings.

Brotherhood candidates standing as independents won 17 of parliament’s 444 elected seats in 2000 elections, making it the chamber’s biggest opposition bloc. Opposition parties have courted the Brotherhood for possible alliances.


“The only political group that is facing the government effectively are the Islamists. If they get to power, my goodness … Before this happens, most Copts would leave Egypt. They would not want to live under sharia (Islamic) law,” Hanna said.

Egypt’s current constitution already cites Islamic law as the main source of legislation but many Islamists say the government often ignores or bypasses that provision.

The Brotherhood says Christians have nothing to fear and, if it ever came to power, it would protect Christian rights.

Relations between the two groups are usually calm but there are occasional outbreaks of sectarian violence, notably in 1999 when 22 people were killed in the southern village of Kosheh.

Violence broke out in Alexandria last month after the distribution of a DVD of a two-year-old play that Muslims said was insulting to Islam. Christians and even some Muslims questioned the timing of the distribution of the DVD.

“We think that there is a political reason behind this … We hear many rumours about us. Lies about what we say, and newspapers pretend we insult the prophet,” said a Christian woman in Alexandria, who declined to give her name.

Accusations of forced or solicited conversions from Christianity to Islam, or vice versa, especially of women, have often been a flashpoint for sectarian clashes.

Overt prejudice is hard to find, however.

“Muslims and Christians, they are both religions from God. When the day of judgement comes will he just judge Muslims on their own? Or will he judge us all together? Together of course,” said Christian factory worker Saleh Eid, 38.

Eid’s Muslim friends, who also attended Makram-Ebeid’s election rally, said all Egyptians faced the same problems of corruption and unemployment, and they would vote for whoever would help solve these problems regardless of religion.

“Young people here are in a bad way. There are no opportunities, no jobs. We need someone, it doesn’t matter who, to take these demands to the top,” said marketing company worker Mahmoud Sami Ahmed, 23.