Egypt’s Copts frustrated by under-representation in parliament polls

Egypt's Coptic minority are growing more frustrated over what they believe as the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)’s marginalization of Christians in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. 

The NDP has chosen only 11 Copts to run in various districts out of around 800 party contenders.

Other secular opposition parties have selected approximately 30 Copts to run in elections, while around 65 Christians are listed as independent candidates.

“If the NDP nominates ten Copts for 508 seats in parliament, than the party is marginalizing the role of Copts,” said Youssef Sidhoum, editor-in-chief of Coptic weekly Al-Watan.

Local media reported last month that the Coptic community in the coastal city of Alexandria had criticized the NDP electoral college for disregarding candidates officially put forth by the Coptic Church. Some Coptic candidates went even further, suggesting that they would back Muslim Brotherhood candidates in elections.

The NDP, however, denies any sectarian motives for not selecting Christian candidates, arguing that election-related nominations had been solely based on candidates’ popularity levels in their respective electoral districts.  

The weak participation of Copts also comes as a result of growing sectarian tension in Egyptian society, which, Coptic candidates complain, renders them unwelcome by the majority of Muslim voters.  

“Growing Islamization in Egypt makes it more challenging for a Copt to feel confident when running for elections,” said Margaret Azer, head of the Election Operation Office at the opposition Wafd Party.

Experts point to previous proposals put forward to advance Coptic representation through an "affirmative action" mechanism.

“The NDP has already implemented a quota system to empower female parliamentary candidates but declined to do the same for Copts. The message is that Copts are unwanted,” said Sidhoum.

Last year, the government passed legislation guaranteeing women 64 out of 508 parliamentary seats, in a move aimed at increasing female representation in the People's Assembly.

“The participation of Copts is very weak compared to the proportion of Copts, who make up around 10 percent of the population,” said Samer Soliman, one of the founders of rights group Egyptians against Religious Discrimination.

A Coptic quota, Soliman believes, would only provide cosmetic solutions, since it would serve to perpetuate sectarian politics.  

“We want Egyptian political life to be more secular, and by suggesting a quota for Copts, this will create further sectarianism,” said Soliman.

Increasing Copts’ representation in politics could be achieved by changing the political system, he added.

“A proportional electoral system would include party lists that consider various groups in society, including young men, women and Copts. That could be better than an individualized system that is more based on tribal connections,” he said.

Prior to the 1990 parliamentary elections, Egypt had a proportional party system in which voters could choose between competing party lists. Later, the political system was changed to be based on individual candidates–a move experts believe has boosted tribal and religious-based voting patterns.   

In 2005 parliamentary elections, the NDP fielded only two Coptic candidates, one of which withdrew before elections took place. Parliament ended up having only one elected Christian MP: Minister of Finance Youssef Boutrous-Ghali.

According to the Egyptian constitution, the president appoints ten additional members of parliament, in which he normally includes a high percentage of women and Copts to make up for their low representation among the elected members. 

“The whole political atmosphere needs to be reformed to change these feelings against Copts, or their chances of winnining will remain marginal,” Sidhoum said.

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