Egypt’s Copts: At a political crossroads

As the 25 January revolution continues sending shockwaves across Egypt and signals what could be a thorough remaking  of the country’s political and socio-economic landscape, Egypt’s Coptic minority is expected to be greatly affected by the impending changes.

Despite perpetual fears of sectarian strife, a new political role is shaping up for the country’s largest minority.

“We are now witnessing a deep shift in the status of Copts in society. The shift is from the failed policy of guardianship applied by the former regime to a democratic system in which Copts are pursuing their own political agendas without heavy interference from the church,” said Hossam Tamam, researcher in the Islamic movements.

The politicization of Copts

Traditionally, Copts were aligned with the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria publicly endorsed its candidates in elections.

However, in the last parliamentary elections in 2010, the pope broke from his past behavior and voted for a candidate from the liberal opposition Wafd Party. Following the New Year’s attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria which killed more than two dozen worshipers and wounded scores, analysts argued that regime-church tensions were likely to intensify given the state’s failure to provide Copts with basic security.

In the meantime, analysts believe that younger Coptic generations are more politicized than older ones, and this new dynamic has begun to challenge church authority.

“Coptic youth nowadays have ways to express themselves outside of the church. Civil society and internet activism constitute new mediums for Copts to push their demands,” said Ishak Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a rights group. “Not all these demands are sectarian or religious. Some demands are merely political.”

The assumption that the church always represents the will of most Copts no longer holds true.  “The most obvious example is where Copts ignored warnings made by clergymen not to participate in the massive demonstrations (during the revolution),” said Tamam.

During the revolution, Copts participated in Tahrir Square, which became a stronghold for protesters demanding the ouster of the regime.

At least 12 Copts died and scores were injured during the revolution, according to Kamil Magdy Saleh of the church’s Confessional Council.

“The blood that poured in the street against the former regime was the blood of Muslims and Copts. We now expect the struggle to be centered around the idea of a civil state,” said Naguib Gebraeel, a Coptic church lawyer and human rights activist.

Following the revolution, Copts staged three demonstrations in Tahrir Square condemning purported attacks on a Nitrian Desert monastery and calling for an end to various aspects of discrimination they face.

During the demonstrations, Copts chanted slogans that called for increased religious freedom and a secular state.

“We are calling for political demands, not sectarian ones. A civil state is a must for us to have a nation without discrimination,” said John Milad, a human rights activist.

“Oh youth of Tahrir, we are your Christian brothers,” was a frequent slogan chanted by Copts during recent demonstrations.

Similar slogans contrasted sharply with those chanted on 1 January, following the Alexandria church bombing, where chants were laden with sectarian overtones such as, “With our blood and souls, we will defend our cross.”

More recently, the fall of State Security Investigations Service (SSIS) which monitored and controlled Coptic affairs to large degree during the era of former President Hosni Mubarak is believed to be an important reason for Copts’ reversion to politics.

“Copts are now aware that they have to tell everybody about their demands. In the past they trusted the religious leadership which was in a direct contact with SSIS. Now, the SSIS is over, and Copts have found it easier to negotiate and call for their demands without SSIS interference,” argued Joseph Malak, a member of the church’s Confessional Council. He is launching a new political party.

Coptic fears

Meanwhile, the purported attack on the Monastery of Saint Pishoy in the Nitrian Desert, the demolition of Shahedein Church in Helwan, and the killing of at least ten people in clashes between Copts and thugs in Cairo constitute three recent events that have stirred Coptic fears.

Those events aside, Copts are becoming increasingly fearful as the political and social identities of Islamist groups begin to crystallize in the aftermath of Egypt’s 25 January revolution.

For one, the Muslim Brotherhood plans to establish its first political party after having been officially banned for decades. Its moderate spin-off, Wasat Party, is slated to become a political party as well after being denied permission for 16 years.

More radical groups such as Salafis and Islamic Jamaa are intent on action. They call for meetings and conferences in mosques and emphasize Egypt’s “Islamic identity.”

This week, the Salafi movement, which has been vocal in slamming Pope Shenouda III for sequestering Christian women who allegedly converted to Islam, took to the streets demanding their release. Christians are scared.

“I can tell that I haven’t seen the Copts as afraid as they are these days. They think that the military itself is penetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Marianne Samuel, 33, a teacher who works in Bahrain and who returned to Egypt to take part in the revolution.

Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has appointed a Muslim Brotherhood member to the committee assigned to draft constitutional amendments.

Mubarak’s regime waged a war against radical Islamist factions and sent hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members to prisons. He viewed the group–which targeted civilians and tourists in terrorist attacks in the past–as a threat to his regime.

With Mubarak’s departure and the release of Islamists from prisons, Copts fear becoming second-class citizens under an Islamic state.

“As long as they have parties and political representation, they would claim the presidency and could impose the Islamic Tribute (jizya) on us,” said Mary Mosaad, 28, an employee at a tourism company.

The jizya was a special tax paid by non-Muslims to their Muslim rulers during the Middle Ages. In the late 1990s, the late Brotherhood leader Mostafa Mashour told a journalist that in an Islamic state, Copts would be required to pay it.

 In their first attempt to draft a party platform in 2005, the Brotherhood wrote that under Sharia (Islamic) Law, Copts and women are not entitled to serve as presidents.

“We have the right to worry. We are witnessing the rise of a group that doesn’t believe in a civil state,” said Gebraeel.

Islamist fears

Hundreds of Coptic Christians protested last week in front of the State Television building to call for a secular state and to amend article two of the Constitution which stipulates Sharia as a source of legislation.

“We can’t build our own places of worship and the answer is because Egypt is an Islamic state. We simply want religious freedoms, and I’m afraid that article two makes it difficult for us to enjoy them,” argued Nabil Wasfy, 43, an engineer and political activist.

The Coptic minority has traditionally suffered exclusion from top posts in the public sector. Moreover, the community faces restrictions on the right to build and renovate places of worship.

According to the Ministry of Religious Endowments, there is a strong disparity between the number of mosques and churches in Egypt. Although Copts comprise almost 10 percent of the country’s population, Egypt contains only 2000 churches compared with 93,000 mosques.

But Islamic groups such the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood vehemently reject proposed changes to article two. Such groups rely on the article to preserve their political identities.

“For the Salafi movement and the Islamic groups, article two represents their primary political platform,” said Tamam. “Hencem Copts pose a challenge to those groups.  They have a weight in society that’s impossible to ignore. The more they get involved in politics, the more religious freedom they stand to enjoy,” he added.

Tamam believes that the current period is ripe for Coptic gains.

“Egypt is now heading into a democratic system that grants political power to any faction. Copts in this regard have a historic opportunity to increase their demands. Any political group would think seriously about Coptic demands now,” argued Tamam.

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