Magazine article The Christian Century

Hard Choices in Egypt: Will Christians Vote for the Old Regime?

Magazine article The Christian Century

Hard Choices in Egypt: Will Christians Vote for the Old Regime?

Article excerpt

COPTIC CHRISTIANS, who constitute about 10 percent of Egypt's population, were in a unique position to influence the first round of the presidential elections on May 23-24, the first election ever in Egypt without a predetermined outcome. It appears that they sided primarily with a representative of the old regime.

The top two vote-getters were Ahmed Shafik, who was appointed prime minister by Mosni Mubarak in a last-ditch effort to save his position, and Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. With Morsi and Shafik set to compete in a runoff election June 16-17, the election seems drawn as a competition between the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi and Shafik each advanced with about 24 percent of the total, edging out Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished third. Sabahi is a long-standing opposition figure and a moderate socialist and Egyptian nationalist. As the centrist candidacies of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Amr Moussa waned, Sabahi's popularity exploded, especially among the youth, including many Copts. Fotouh is a former Brotherhood member who sought to be a bridge between Islamists and liberals. He attracted some Copts until receiving the endorsement of ultra-conservative Salafi groups, which scared many away. Moussa is a former foreign minister who fell out of favor with Mubarak, which increased his credibility. He attracted Copts who were sympathetic to the revolution but wary of drastic changes.

Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, estimated that about 60 percent of Christians voted for Shafik, 30 percent for Sabahi, and 10 percent for Moussa. As the votes were counted, one Sabahi campaign activist lashed out at Christians, claiming that they killed the revolution. He was quickly quieted down.

Yet is the charge true? Did Copts vote solidly for the most counterrevolutionary candidate? One must also ask: Did they feel the threat of the Brotherhood compelled them to make this decision?

For Sidhom, the choice has become clear. "The revolution is now in the hands of political Islam, and Copts must make a bitter choice to support the civil state. I expect Moussa's supporters will easily shift to Shafik, but how will we be able to convince the youth, who were so dedicated to the revolution, to do so as well?"

The youth may be hard pressed to follow his line. Bassem Victor is an Orthodox activist and one of the few Copts who have sought to bridge the gaps between the Coptic and Salafi communities. He boycotted the election and expects to boycott the run-off as well. "I cannot vote for Morsi and his Islamist project," he said, "nor can I bring myself to vote for an old regime figure because of all the sectarian incidents over the past 30 years, in which no one was brought to justice."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Joanna Azmi is a Protestant activist who expresses both confusion and disappointment at the result of the vote. "I don't know why the Copts supported Shafik; they are looking for stability. I don't know if the revolution was even that important to them. I don't know what to believe about Shafik either, but Copts are very afraid, and they have always been so. Plus, they often simply follow the herd in what their community thinks. …

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