Copts pave the road ahead
BY MAI SHAMS EL-DIN
Cairo: “It saddens me to be asked to protect Coptic rights,” President Mohamed Morsi told a delegation of clergymen in the presidential palace soon after he was elected the country’s first civilian president.
But the gesture did little to quell the Coptic community’s fears.
After Morsi’s victory over Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafik, who arguably garnered most of the Coptic vote, fears of the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood group to which Morsi belongs are mounting among Egypt’s Copts.
To many observers, the Coptic community emerged more as an organized and politicized force than a mere religious minority, despite Shafik’s loss in the end. The question now revolves around the nature of their fears under the reign of an Islamist president and what they will do about it.
While their fears overlap with those of many political and national forces, especially with regards to personal freedoms and civil liberties, for the Coptic community, concerns run much deeper.
“The fears of Copts are different according to social class and political orientation,” Coptic activist Mina Fayek told The Egypt Monocle.
“For the secular, upper class Copts, the concerns are related to personal freedoms, especially the usual talk of banning bikinis and alcohol,” said the activist, who was part of moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotoh’s campaign.
Yet, Fayek argues that they, like the middle and lower class Copts, share more serious concerns over citizenship issues, building churches and sectarian tensions that usually result in violence.
“We have a long legacy of discrimination against Copts that sometimes reaches physical torture. Of course things will never reach that level again, but with a long discriminatory history, the fears are legitimate,” he added.
Copts have long complained of being prevented from holding high positions, whether in the army or the police, in addition to top government positions — and that’s besides the debate over whether they are eligible to run for president.
The Brotherhood’s stance over Copts’ nomination for presidency has been ambiguous. In 2007, the Brotherhood declared in their electoral program that a Copt cannot run for presidency in an Islamic state, a platform that was heavily criticized by many reformist Islamists inside the group, including Abol Fotoh.
In 2011, the Brotherhood’s political arm the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), headed by Morsi before he took up the presidency, acknowledged the full citizenship rights of Copts, but avoided any reference to the debate over the presidency issue. Morsi has repeatedly said he intends to choose a Coptic vice president.
“I do not share all of the concerns and worries of the Coptic community,” Chief Editor of Watani, a Coptic newspaper, Youssef Sedhom said.
“Morsi said in his Cairo University speech that Egypt will be a civil, modern and democratic state. This is not a haphazard statement; he knows what he is talking about,” Sedhom said. Morsi will be held to account by the Coptic community if he fails to deliver on those promises, he added.
He explains that most of the Coptic population voted for Shafik out of fear of the emergence of a theocratic state, led by the Brotherhood candidate.
“When journalists asked Morsi for more assurances for Copts, Morsi asked how he can assure them while they are in their own country. This is the same rhetoric we heard during Mubarak’s [reign],” he said.
Copts are wary that this rhetoric reflects Morsi’s reluctance to work towards real reforms to allay their concerns, Sedhom said. “We are fed up with these empty promises; our fears need to be directly addressed. This is what concerns the Copts now,” he said.
“Mubarak, in the midst of serious sectarian tension, used to say he never discriminated against Copts. But Copts were discriminated against all the time. Enough with this denial,” Sedhom said.
Coptic activists have been criticized for mobilizing only to push forth specific legislation that will protect their rights and guarantee equal citizenship, while ignoring the social aspect. But sectarianism in Egypt, observers argue, is a culturally embedded phenomenon that will not be resolved merely through new laws.
Evone Mossa’ad, general coordinator of the Maspero Coptic Youth Union, believes otherwise.
“Implementing the rule of law will solve all issues. When citizens feel the spirit of equality and real citizenship and accountability, social and cultural dilemmas will be resolved,” she added.
Coptic thinker Kamal Zakher called for forming a national anti-discrimination body that would criminalize discrimination and ensure citizenship rights for all Egyptians, regardless of race or religious affiliation.
Meanwhile, Sedhom believes that Coptic demands will only be strengthened if they are adopted on the national agenda of political parties and lobby groups that are not necessarily Coptic.
“Copts should not be grouped in Coptic-only organizations. They should join political parties and rights organizations and lobby for these demands,” Sedhom said.
The Coptic journalist argues that lobbying for citizenship rights through organizations whose members are both Muslim and Coptic will legitimize the demands and make them more national than religious-based.
Fayek agrees, asserting that Coptic participation in political life was too weak before the Jan. 25 uprising, which allowed more space for the Church to play a political role.
The Church was long criticized for bargaining on Coptic rights with the ousted regime, negotiating on their behalf, which led to unnecessary compromises.
But others say the Church acted wisely to prevent persecution and bloodshed.
“The Church played the role that the state was not playing. Copts lived their entire life inside the Church that organized everything … from soccer tournaments to financial aid and religious activities,” Fayek said.
“These were all part of the state’s duties towards Coptic and Muslim citizens but they were never fulfilled. With the history of social and religious discrimination against Copts, it was natural for the Church to be the alternative,” he added.
The majority of Copts, Sedhom said, participated in the political process after the Jan. 25 uprising, but only by standing in the long queues to vote for what they believe represented a “civil state.” They went back home depressed after the sweeping victory of Islamists in both the parliamentary and presidential elections.
“The active minority of Copts will join opposition forces to monitor the performance of the new president and see how he will fulfill the pledges towards Copts and Egyptians in general,” he argued.
Both Fayek and Sedhom say that simply forming Coptic organizations is not the solution.
“We are already joining other revolutionary and political forces to build real citizenship rights for all Egyptians, not just Copts,” Mossa’ad said.
“Fears of implementing a strict interpretation of Sharia are shared by both Copts and the majority of moderate Muslims in Egypt, and our work will not be separate from all these national forces,” she argues, adding that the first Coptic coalition formed after the revolution will not be making sectarian or religious demands.
Fayek argues that the real hope lies in a politicized minority of Copts, linking between the politically apathetic Coptic population and the rest of Egyptian society.
“This minority will work internally to encourage the mainstream Coptic community to let go of their fears and engage more in political life, and will call for their rights externally through the political organizations they work in,” Fayek said, adding that it will take a long time to make Copts feel secure.
“It is very difficult for Copts to overcome the psychological state of mind of the oppressed minority they have been living under for decades,” he argues.
The Church: A diminishing role?
The Coptic Orthodox Church, led by late Pope Shenouda III, was criticized for urging Copts not to participate in the Jan. 25 protests, a move seen as a sign of a political alignment with the former regime.
“The Coptic Church always played a national role to preserve the rights of Copts and prevent more bloodshed,” Mossa’ad argued, denying the previous claims.
Sedhom and Fayek, however, said that a clear message was sent to the Church after the revolution not to intervene in politics.
“I think the message was delivered to the Church. However, initiatives to encourage Copts to vote for certain candidates after the revolution were led by a committee called the citizenship committee, which is ran by Coptic [church] servants who are not religious leaders at all,” Sedhom said.
These committees were formed to spread political awareness among Copts inside every archbishopric, but were chastised for overstepping their stated goals of simply spreading awareness. During the parliamentary elections, these committees encouraged Copts to vote for certain candidates, while in the presidential election, Copts voted en mass for Shafik.
“Pope Shenouda said it clearly before his death, that he encourages Copts not to vote for [only] Copts, because there are Muslims who care about Coptic issues more than Copts themselves,” Sedhom said, emphasizing that his temporary successor Bishop Bakhomious decided to keep a low political profile until a new Pope is elected.
Sedhom believes there was a misunderstanding between this committee, whose members are not religious clerics, and the Church itself. “This debate was raised a lot in the media. Confusing the two was sometimes intentional.”
A new Pope is to be elected soon by a group of high-ranking Coptic clerics and figures, and many speculate that the decision will be influenced by the new context, opting for a Pope who will be strong enough to stand for Coptic rights in order to counter the domination of Islamists in government and parliament.
Fayek dismisses such speculations, citing the nature of the selection process itself.
“Not all Copts are going to elect the new Pope, it’s only a very select circle … which base their criteria more on religious and spiritual issues,” he said.
The Coptic activist believes that even if a specific candidate who fits specific criteria is pushed forward, the final stage of the selection process is too arbitrary for anyone to claim that it was politicized.
“A young child will randomly pick one name from among the three finalists in an open ceremony. Is there any way to channel the child’s choice towards a specific groomed candidate?” Fayek asked. –The Egypt Monocle