Coptic Christians are trying to make their voices heard in Muslim-majority Egypt’s parliamentary election, fearing Islamists could sweep in and deepen their sense of marginalisation.
Egypt’s Christians are reeling from a spate of attacks on churches since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February that they blame on Islamists. An October protest over one such attack led to clashes with military police in which 25 people were killed.
This has deepened a feeling of isolation in a community that makes up about a tenth of a population of 80 million and whose roots in Egypt pre-date the emergence of Islam.
Fady Badie, like many Egyptians, voted for the first time in this week’s parliamentary vote, seen as meaningful unlike the rigged polls of Mubarak’s time. But one of his main concerns was to dilute the Islamist vote and voice his other worries.
“For sure Copts are afraid of this prospect (of Islamists in parliament). We have problems with the military council (of rulers), problems with Islamists and, now this year, we have found we even have problems with the general public,” he said, speaking during voting in the Cairo suburb of Maadi.
“If the democratic process is challenged and what happened in Iran happens in Egypt, then I will start really worrying,” he said, adding that he was choosing the Egyptian Bloc alliance, which includes a party co-founded by a Christian billionaire.
The alliance that includes the Free Egyptians party of prominent Christian telecoms tycoon Naguib Sawiris is a popular choice among Christians and some liberal-leaning Muslims who are equally concerned by the rise of Islamists.
But the Bloc has drawn unwelcome attention. Supporters blame Islamists for what they say is a smear campaign to deter any Muslim voters from choosing it because of images posted on Facebook saying it is: “The voice for the Egyptian church.”
It reflects growing sectarian tensions in a nation where rights groups say flare-ups between Muslim and Christian communities that were increasingly common before Mubarak’s ouster have now erupted into even more deadly violence.
One concern for Christians is that Islamists will dominate the parliament that will pick an assembly to write a new constitution, in which they might enshrine Islamic laws.
“They are specifically concerned about that because they have been victims of continuous attempts to give Egypt an Islamic-flavoured legislation,” said Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of Orthodox Coptic newspaper al-Watani.
“They are sceptical about what will be their fate under any Islamic majority in our parliament,” he said.
Christians, who span Egypt’s social scale from the poorest to the richest, have been galvanised to vote in a bid to secure a liberal-leaning parliament that will address their grievances and counter a rising tide of Islamists.
“Even if defeating the Islamic wing is far fetched, at least the Islamic wing will not end up with an overwhelming majority in the parliament,” said Sidhom.
Ordinary Christians long grumbled that Mubarak failed to address their longstanding complaints of discrimination, laws that made it easier to build a mosque than a church, or exclusion from senior jobs in state institutions.
The state always denied any discrimination as does the new ruling military council.
But Christians had kept a low political profile as many were quietly pleased that Mubarak suppressed Islamists, even if they saw his motives as self-serving, not as a sop to Christians.
The landscape has changed dramatically since Mubarak was ousted. The Muslim Brotherhood, ultra-conservative Salafis and other Islamists have launched parties that expect to secure a big chunk of seats in a parliamentary vote that began this week.
Egypt’s complex voting system of lists and individuals make it difficult to predict a result, but some analysts say Islamists could secure 40 percent of seats, with many of those going to the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.
Islamists say Christian fears about an Islamist parliament are unfounded and say that all Egyptians, regardless of religion, should be respected as citizens. Islamic law, they say, would respect their rights.
Islamists also accuse the church of sharpening divisions.
“The Copts should blend into Egyptian society and there should not be a religious symbol (in politics) that would influence people’s decision,” said Emad Abdel Ghafour, head of the ultra-conservative Islamist Salafi Al-Nour party.
Neither al-Azhar, Cairo’s prestigious seat of Islamic learning, nor the church should influence people’s decision in elections, he said in Alexandria, a Christian centre of learning in ancient times and now a stronghold for Islamists.
Islamist reassurances have failed to douse worries of some Copts who queued up with their Muslim compatriots during voting on Monday and Tuesday in the first round of the staggered election that will take six weeks to complete.
“I have a sister and I don’t want her to be forced to wear a hijab (Islamic veil) because she is a woman,” said 26-year-old Meena Gerges at a polling station in Alexandria.
The church denies taking sides in the election. But some Christians say they have been quietly encouraged to pick more moderate political voices, whether Muslim or Christian.
“We are not scared, but as we want to build a liberal democratic society that respects everyone’s rights, surely if Islamist voices dominate parliament, then the ensuing legislation will not be for the public benefit,” said priest Mina Reda Ibrahim.
Speaking at a church in the northern coastal city of Damietta, he also admitted that the Christian vote would have little impact in a campaign in his town, where competing Islamist groups dominate.