New political climate could provide hope for Copts

The election of Islamist President Mohamed Morsy has placed religion at the forefront of the ongoing efforts to chart Egypt’s uncertain future. The yet-untested sincerity of appeals for greater inclusivity by Morsy and his supporters, and the mutual goodwill offerings between both Coptic Christian and Muslim leaders are cause for equal parts optimism and hesitancy.

This dual reaction underscores not so much skepticism about the way events in Egypt might unfold in the coming months, but the tension between moving forward and falling back into old patterns of fear and suspicion. This has happened as various religious and political figures are forced to re-evaluate their instincts in the aftermath of revolutionary convulsions that have, despite their positive accomplishments, had a disorienting effect on all Egyptians.

The latest development from the Coptic community is the creation of the Christian Brotherhood, which will catalog these instances of discrimination and persecution against Copts. While laudable in many respects, not least of which is its professed peaceful intentions and Gandhian ethos — it runs the risk of exacerbating the unhelpful “us vs. them” mentality that often foments reactionary violence.

Under the recognition that Islamism is far from a monolith, Morsy increasingly detailed what precisely constitutes inclusivity, from the time he was announced as the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate to replace Khairat al-Shater, when he ambiguously guaranteed “the liberties and fundamental rights of all Egyptians within a framework of fundamental religious values,” to his current, more concrete efforts to appoint a Coptic Christian to his vice presidential team.

Some members of the Coptic hierarchy seemed to come to terms with a Morsy victory after the first round of the election, immediately before the runoff. Bishop Passanty of the Helwan and Masara areas, a member of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod, told Al Arabiya satellite network that he would “welcome Islamic rule that would establish a civil state with equal citizenship rights for all Egyptians.” He also implored Morsy to “remember all that you have said — that Christians have the same duties and rights Muslims have,” while noting that Copts “have [their] own Christian Sharia.”

After the runoff, before the official results were announced, Father Angelos — secretary of the interim pope, Bishop Pachomius — stated that the Coptic leadership would not be worried by a Morsy victory and, in accordance with the repeatedly stated neutrality of many Coptic clergy during the presidential campaign, sought to cooperate with the new president. He added: “We ought to give the winner the chance to rebuild the country.” More recently, Morsy received a delegation from the Coptic Orthodox Church and met with Bishop Pachomius, who congratulated Morsy and affirmed that his ascent to the presidency in Egypt’s first fair and open election was “a comfort to all Egyptians.”

Still, some fears among Copts persist, understandable for many reasons, not least of which is the persecution they have endured over many decades at the hands of the Mubarak regime and Muslim extremists. This has left them with few emotional tools to manufacture any genuine optimism about the future under Islamist rule.

Add to this the reputation of Egypt as a “country of rumors” fueled by unchecked media deception during the presidential campaigning period, and we can begin to understand the bewilderment of the Coptic community, unable to surmount facile caricatures of both former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq and Morsy, leading to increased paranoia often rooted in mere hearsay.

And so, now that Morsy has been officially sworn in as Egypt’s first civilian president, many unanswered questions about the extent of Coptic freedoms under Islamist rule remain, including whether the extensive red tape during the Mubarak regime that forced Copts to obtain a presidential permit before building, renovating or repairing Christian churches will be repealed or at least eased.

As the recent Salafi recommendation to alter Article 2 of the 1971 Constitution so that it reads “Sharia is the main source of legislation” shows, it remains to be seen whether Egyptian law will continue to be based merely on the principles of Islamic jurisprudence as its main source as per the 1971 Egyptian Constitution and 1980 amendment.

Despite these concerns and without dismissing the legitimacy of the feelings of insecurity of those who have witnessed or experienced violence, more likely at the hands of uncouth criminals who have couched their agenda in religious language than authentic sectarian hostilities, positive developments in the Egyptian political and religious arena are cause for a degree of optimism.

Reasons to believe the future for Copts in Egypt is moving in a positive direction

The experience of persecution, imprisonment, and banishment that members of the Muslim Brotherhood have endured, first under Anwar Sadat immediately before his assassination and then throughout the Mubarak era, have left an indelible mark on its leadership, which, as Morsy’s repeated denouncement of retribution after taking office shows, holds promise as a motivation for reaching out in empathetic solidarity with other Egyptian demographics who continue to face similar hardships. As the success of memory, myth-telling, and consciousness of one’s location in a grander narrative shows when applied to peacebuilding operations, the recollection of this recent persecution of Brotherhood members should be a source of encouragement for Copts, who live in a country where office-holders censured the negative experiences they had to endure in recent decades. In a speech after the initial round of voting, Morsy, for example, ensured the rights of Coptic Christians and women and the economic self-determination of farmers by suggesting, “The era of the superman is over. The president cannot have the only say in decision-making as it did under the former regime.” Even more overtly reflective of this empathetic solidarity was the appeal to the Coptic community before the run-off between Morsy and Shafiq by Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, who assured Copts that they are “our dignified brothers, and reform of the homeland is reform for all citizens, Muslims and Christians, for we have both suffered from sectarian strife and the divisive practices of the former regime, which you undoubtedly do not want to bring back to power.”

This mutual experience of discrimination should at least lend some credence to the many efforts by the Brotherhood and its allies to project a moderate Islamism that acknowledges the dignity of all Egyptians, Copts and women especially, thereby showing signs of a resurgence in focus on the diversity of humanity taught in the Hadith and Quran, which declares, “If your Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people” (11:118) and “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (109:6). In a speech before the runoff election, for instance, Morsy tried to allay fears that he would impose strict Sharia on all Egyptians by instead emphasizing justice and equality, affirming that “Our Christian brothers, let's be clear, are national partners and have full rights like Muslims.” Just as a member of the Brotherhood in the presidential post was unthinkable before the revolution, so does Morsy’s pledge to appoint a Coptic Christian to his vice presidential team signal a comparable rise from discrimination to prominence.

Not only due to the limited wiggle room that Morsy’s transparency now affords him, but also because of the intensified open scrutiny of the president’s every move, the legislation requiring a presidential permit to build, renovate, or repair Christian churches is more likely than not to be overturned. This is a probable outcome of the looming constitutional deliberations not only because it is the most visible symbol of discrimination against the Coptic community so their leaders will expend much energy trying to amend it but also inasmuch as its use as a convenient go-to wedge and instigator of sectarian violence by the Mubarak regime to justify secular rule and uphold emergence law is now moot, even undesirable for any political opponents of the old National Democratic Party. Bishop Passanty also criticized Mubarak for preserving this emblematic barometer of state-sanctioned discrimination against Copts, claiming, “All we want is for building a church to be as easy as building a mosque,” while the grand mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa, suggested in a recent interview with Dar al-Ifta’s media center that Morsy address the ground-level fears of his Coptic “brothers.” Many parishioners stated following the new year church bombing in Alexandria only a few weeks before the onset of the 25 January revolution that the obligation to obtain a permit from the president was often used by the Mubarak regime to sow discord between Copts and Muslims, by giving extremists a reason to exacerbate violent conflict between the two groups. Repealing this legislation will take away that reason as well as a primary reason for Egyptians to elect strong military-backed secular regimes in the future which is, of course, in the Brotherhood’s best interest.

This new era of successive elections in a fair and open participatory democracy also illustrates the emerging need to satisfy all segments of Egyptian society, including the Coptic community, and acquiesce not only to Copts but the Muslim majority who stand in solidarity with them.  This new reality, yet-to-be codified more practically in legislation that addresses their interests, was reflected in Badie’s petition for the support of Coptic voters on behalf of Morsy only a few days before the runoff, urging all “citizens not to allow any attempt to falsify the will of the people” in his effort to dilute the reigning perception of Shafiq as more protective of minority rights due to his secularist credentials.  

Moreover, with such a narrow margin of victory and a relatively low percentage of supporters, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is showing signs of awareness, accompanied by the commensurate strategizing, that with parliamentary and presidential elections every four years, opposition groups supported by the original student revolutionaries, youth movements, leftist, liberals, and secular Muslims will have more time and motivation, having learned their lesson after the first disorganized attempt, to coalesce as a united front against the Islamist option; this, no doubt, means that the Freedom and Justice Party, and other Islamist parties including the Nour, the Construction and Development, and the newly created Democratic Jihad, will be forced to enshrine the protection of the Coptic minority in practical ways to expropriate one of the policy priorities that make secular liberals unique. We see evidence of this deliberate strategy, beneficial to all Egyptians including Copts, in Morsy’s pre-election speech touting his guarantee of a “coalition government” that will “consist of politicians from a variety of groups, not just Islamists or Brotherhood members,” already being realized in the possible appointment of Mohamed ElBaradei as prime minster and a Coptic Christian and woman to the vice presidential team. These moves align with the discussions at a meeting between Jimmy Carter, who accompanied an envoy from his Carter Center to monitor the election, and leaders of the Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Nour Party, in which the two groups promised that Egypt would remain a civil state if Morsy were elected.

The success of the Brotherhood also seems not to have so far emboldened radical militant Muslims and extremist Islamic organizations who are often responsible for any violence against Copts, despite some ongoing criminal behaviour and pseudo-sectarian thuggery, who are instead acting as an effective ambassador of the democratic avenue for change. Morsy’s triumph may have the positive effect of mitigating the frustrations of Islamist extremists whose recourse to violence is often an act of desperation and who can now identify and emulate a more viable and universally lauded alternative. The latest group to embrace nonviolent struggle, joining the Brotherhood who renounced violence in the 1970s and the Gama’a al-Islamiya who did so in 2003, are members of Egypt’s Jihad who have created the new self-described moderate Democratic Jihad Party and whose leader, Sheikh Yasser Saad, claimed that “in prison, we read and learned a lot about religion, which helped transform our ideology — hence our current, nonviolent worldview.”

There are, of course, no guarantees in politics, and the unfamiliar territory, ongoing political jockeying, clandestine meetings between both political foes and allies, and the many uncertainties surrounding the drafting of the constitution, dissolution of Parliament, and extent of powers afforded to the president and SCAF should keep all Egyptians on their toes, not just Copts. Nevertheless, the desperation that often leads to increased violence will hopefully continue to subside and the Coptic community can become optimistic that their voices will have to be heard in this unprecedented political and religious climate in Egypt’s history that requires a corresponding adjustment to one’s expectations, instincts, and vision for the future.

Andrew P. Klager teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, BC, Canada

A shorter version of this article was orignially published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition

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