Copts: Between a rock and a hard place

The first round of the Egyptian presidential election resulted in a runoff between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy, who won 25 percent of the votes (about 5.8 million), and Ahmed Shafiq — a former prime minister and symbol of the Hosni Mubarak regime — who won 24 percent (about 5.5 million votes). The question now is how Egyptian Coptic Christians will vote in the upcoming runoff between these two candidates.

There are almost 8.5 million Copts in Egypt who represent about 10 percent of the population and constitute the largest Christian community in the Middle East. Observers often cite how Copts are concerned that the Brotherhood might turn Egypt into an Islamic state. Nevertheless, the alternative, Shafiq, is generally not welcomed by many Egyptians who consider him part of the previous regime. With this in mind, there is still a question of whether the Brotherhood will be willing to take political or legal steps that may alleviate Copts’ concerns about the movement’s conservatism and encourage Christians to vote for the Brotherhood’s candidate.

Answering this question requires an examination of the way Copts have historically been treated in Egypt, a country that has a majority Muslim population. It is also necessary to explain the general principles that regulate the status of religious minorities in Islam. While these are complex issues that fall beyond the context of this article, a brief reading of Islamic history reveals that religious minorities can coexist peacefully in an Islamic country.

On the one hand, there is general agreement among Muslim scholars that Islam does not discriminate against non-Muslims, particularly when it comes to laws regulating access to the public sphere. Also, non-Muslims are allowed to follow their own religious laws, especially when it comes to family law, religious practice, and the like. On the other hand, Copts in particular have a fortunate position in Islamic history. History reveals that Prophet Mohamed had a great deal of compassion for Copts. He was reported to have spoken highly of Copts, describing them as supporters of Muslims and followers in the cause of God. He also urged Muslims to take good care of Copts, stating that they were Muslims’ best allies. In addition, a reading of recent Egyptian history shows that Muslims and Christians have always lived side by side in peace, and have historically been able to overcome incidents of sectarian strife. A clear example is the unity of the Muslim crescent and the Christian cross during the 1919 Revolution.

Consequently, both historically and religiously speaking, a dialogue between the two groups has always been reachable. Most historians agree that the phenomenon of sectarian strife is relatively recent. Mubarak’s regime made use of this inter-communal conflict to strengthen the regime’s authority. Some extremist religious leaders from both sides also played a significant role in provoking religious disputes. This implies that the current dilemma is largely political. Copts are concerned that if Muslim groups with an extremist understanding of political Islam dominate the government they may be subject to institutionalized discrimination. To overcome this dilemma, many scholars, activists and writers have suggested that the Brotherhood take steps to revamp its image, and to appeal both to Egyptians in general and to minorities in particular. An example is Fahmy Huwaidi’s demand that the Brotherhood publicly ensure the right of citizenship and other related rights in case it wins the presidential election.

From a legal perspective, in addition to the general constitutional provisions that address separation of powers, limiting presidential powers, establishment of Egyptians’ fundamental rights, avoiding a state of emergency, guaranteeing judicial independence and protecting human rights, the Brotherhood will also need a constitutional agenda that ensures that the right of citizenship and other related rights are both enforceable and applied equally to minorities.

The Brotherhood, representing a majority in Parliament, has been accused of trying to have a final say in the drafting of the provisions of the new constitution by having their followers dominate the drafting committee. The previous drafting committee was disbanded because it did not observe the constitutional requirement of fair representation for all Egyptians. Recently, the Brotherhood agreed with the rest of the political parties to amend the roster of nominees for the drafting committee to reflect proportional representation of all Egyptians. Going forward, the Brotherhood should be held accountable for this precedent of plurality.

The Brotherhood needs to disclose its constitutional agenda related to the right of citizenship and its related rights. The new constitution should affirm equality of all Egyptians before the law, including the right to freely enjoy civil and political rights and be subject to public duties and responsibilities without any distinction based on race, gender, language, religion or any other reason. Likewise, freedom of religious belief and practice should also be solidified, as long as this practice does not prejudice the public order or moralities. The equal right of all Egyptians to participate in public life and have access to public services should also be guaranteed.

Furthermore, some scholars correctly suggest that in addition to the general constitutional provisions on citizenship and other related rights as mentioned above, the new constitution should provide more detail on how to guarantee their enforcement. This is particularly relevant because in the previous constitution these rights were vague and did not prohibit subsequent legislation from usurping these constitutional provisions. Therefore it is necessary for the constitution to include specific criteria for interpreting and implementing these rights.

In conclusion, the question of whether the Brotherhood will respond to these demands and take substantive steps to address the concerns of the majority of Egyptians in general, and minorities in particular, remains unanswered. If the Brotherhood does, will this encourage Copts to vote for the Brotherhood? Also, how would this speed the transition to democracy in Egypt? The answers to these questions remain matters of speculation that will be put to the test very soon.

Radwa Elsaman teaches commercial and business law at Cairo University School of Law. She received her LLM and PhD in law from the American University Washington College of Law in Washington D.C.

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