Election may spur sectarian divide
BY SAFAA ABDOUN
Cairo: Egypt’s choice for president has been narrowed down to an Islamist and an ex-army general, stoking in the process potential sectarian tension.
As soon as the results of round one were out, accusations were hurled on social media and across the airwaves: The Copts did it. They helped former air force commander Ahmed Shafik make it to the runoff. Their fear of Islamists led Egypt back to the arms of the Mubarak regime.
As critics were blaming the Brotherhood for using mosques in electoral campaigning, the church was accused of mobilizing Egypt’s Christians, estimated to be 10 percent of the population, to vote for Shafik, the last prime minister appointed by ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
About 2.5-3 million Copts voted in the first round, effectively 10-13 percent of the turnout. In the runoff, 50-60 percent are expected to vote, according to Reuters’ estimates.
Shafik came second with 5.5 million votes. Mohamed Morsi, the candidate fielded by the Muslim Brotherhood, was slightly ahead with 5.8 million.
It’s difficult to determine if the entire Coptic population voted for one candidate, especially that there were several candidates outside the Islamist sphere.
Activist Evronia Azer, coordinator of the No to Military Trials Campaign in Alexandria, calls this notion of Copts being the ones who helped Shafik gain more than 5 million votes “a complete myth.”
The entire blame game is just to take the responsibility away from oneself, she said. “The reality of the situation is the activists and the political powers are absent on the street and this is what Shafik played on to get votes,” she said.
Positioning himself as the stability candidate, Shafik utilized a firm rhetoric of restoring security and a harsh take on the Islamists, both of which catered to the proclaimed aspirations of a portion of society tired of the continuous protests and security vacuum that characterized the past 15 months.
“The millions of votes he got could be partially due to forgery, but also we have to acknowledge and admit that it is also a sign that the street now hates the revolution,” Azer explained.
In the first round of the presidential election, Copts were divided among the candidates who represent the civil state agenda: Hamdeen Sabahi, Shafik and Amr Moussa, according to Youssef Sidhoom, editor-in-chief of Coptic newspaper Al-Watani.
The youth votes went to Sabahi and it was the older generations who voted for Moussa or Shafiq. There were also some revolutionaries who instead on boycotting, voted for Khalid Ali.
For many, the lack of solid proof through number breakdowns is not an issue.
Reports claimed the Coptic Church had been endorsing Shafik behind closed doors and through Christian satellite channels.
Bishop Paula, head of the Church’s Citizenship Commission, reportedly held meetings with some young members in which he campaigned for Shafik. Consequently, the Interim Coptic Pope, Bishop Bakhomious, stopped the work of the commission.
Officially, the church denied supporting a specific candidate. Through its public statements since the parliamentary elections, it has been encouraging its constituency to vote, without directing them towards specific candidates. Islamists, including the ultraconservative Salafis, won the majority of both houses of parliament.
“[Copts] have tried the political guidance before and have utterly failed in it,” Azer pointed out. “They did not know how to play [the political game] and will never know how.”
Numbers support Azer’s argument. The Coptic population on its own can’t influence the outcome of the election, not to mention uniting this voting bloc behind one candidate. The only time when this unification was visible was during the referendum on constitutional amendments in March 2011. Like most revolutionary and liberal groups, the Coptic community supported the “no” vote. The amendments were accepted, after more than 77 percent voted “yes.”
Making a decision
While the Copts can’t be credited or blamed for the success of one candidate, those who did vote for Shafik were quick to defend their choice.
Marian Abdel Messih, 37, voted Shafik out of conviction that he will bring about true change. “This is the most suitable person to lead Egypt through this turmoil. His political and governmental background make him more than eligible and his military background ensures the security he will bring,” she said.
“When Mubarak found himself entrapped during the uprising, he brought in the person who can win people over and who will create change. If he wasn’t an honest person … then he would have made him prime minister long ago,” she added.
In addition to the concerns shared by the 5.5 million voters, Copts have more at stake, especially after a year of increased sectarian violence. By May 2011, three churches were burned down. During a mainly Coptic demonstration last October at Maspero, to protest an earlier attack on a church in Aswan, 27 were killed in a military crackdown. While state media blamed the Copts, stoking further attacks on them that same night, statements by Islamist figures over the past 15 months were anything but reassuring for the religious minority.
This sectarian tension could be further stoked by the election. Azer is worried that the runoff will create a sectarian divide similar to what happened during the March referendum.
“There was this entire [dynamic where] Christians were voting no and Muslims voting yes, but in reality the Copts along with the majority of the liberal and revolutionary forces all voted no and it only amounted to 23 percent,” she said.
In the build up to the runoff, the choice has been defined along religious lines more than during the first round.
“At the moment the younger age groups are calling for boycotting the runoff so as not to choose between Shafik and Morsi,” Sidhom said.
Those who are intent on participating hail the ex-military general as the choice of the civil state facing the threat posed by Morsi’s Islamist discourse. In that face-off, the vote will never be in favor of a religious state.
Thus, Copts choosing to vote have only one way to go and that is Shafik, giving the justification of “better to go back a year and a half than 500 years.” –The Egypt Monocle