Egypt’s elections and the man dividing the country’s Copts

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There are images of the Egyptian president everywhere you look in Cairo (World Watch Monitor)
There are images of the Egyptian president everywhere you look in Cairo (World Watch Monitor)

Walking around Cairo you would be forgiven for thinking that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was the only candidate running in the elections later this month. His is the only grandiose face bearing down on passers-by, while billboards of his rival, Mousa Mostafa Mousa, are nowhere to be seen.

Egypt’s 26-28 March presidential elections have slimmed to a two-horse race. Mousa, leader of the el-Ghad Party, registered to stand minutes ahead of the deadline, after all the other candidates dropped out or were persuaded not to run. The party – centrist, liberal, secular and favouring electoral reform – had backed Sisi’s re-election until a week before Mousa announced his candidacy.

The campaign by former military chief of staff Sami Anan, viewed as Sisi’s strongest contender, ended abruptly in January after he was arrested, accused of running without military permission. Former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, previously the main challenger to Sisi, withdrew from the race after being held incommunicado for 24 hours. Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, the nephew of Egypt’s assassinated president, Anwar Sadat, began a campaign but made a dramatic U-turn just as he was expected to announce that he would run for president, saying he feared attacks against his supporters. Khaled Ali, a rights lawyer and a socialist, withdrew from the running shortly after Anan’s arrest, telling journalists “the opportunity for hope in this presidential election has gone”. Another potential candidate, Colonel Ahmed Konsowa, had been arrested and jailed in December for “stating political opinions contrary to the requirements of military order”, according to his lawyer, Asad Haykal.

This has left Egypt’s voters with three options: to re-elect Sisi, whose record on the economy and terrorism is proving key to these elections; to back an unknown candidate with little experience; or to boycott the vote altogether – a tactic advocated by some civil-society groups.

“Sisi has failed to honour the promises of equality he made to us four years ago. We continue to experience discrimination in Egypt and the attacks on us and our churches have increased.”

Christian shop owner Rizk Habib

While the majority of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, Christians are estimated to comprise around 10 per cent, or more, of the population. The largest Christian denomination is the Coptic Orthodox Church, led by Pope Tawadros II, and also represented are various other Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant communities, including some converts from Islam.

For the leaders of Egypt’s Churches, the official response has been to affirm their neutrality and urge their congregations to vote. However, a number of bishops have voiced support for Sisi and in a January interview on state television Pope Tawadros appeared to do the same when he said: “Sisi is a maestro conducting a large orchestra and achieving tangible results”. Given Sisi’s grip on power, observers say Tawadros has little choice but to praise him – in public at least.

Copts are aware that their Church’s support of Sisi costs them dearly. Many Copts welcomed Sisi when he took power, only for Islamist extremists to scapegoat them through violent attacks for backing the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked president, Mohamed Morsi. Yet despite low voter turnout in 2014, Sisi’s win of 97 per cent of votes was not solely down to the Copts.

Over 70 churches were attacked in August 2013 after the military used force to break up camps of protesters demanding the reinstatement of former president Mohamed Morsi. Father Malek Girges’ Mallawi Coptic Church was one of them. (David Degner for World Watch Monitor)

Boycott

Some Egyptians interviewed by World Watch Monitor said they planned to boycott the elections because they felt Sisi had failed them and there was no viable alternative. Rizk Habib, 53, a Christian shop owner in Minya, Upper Egypt, said he would not be voting “because Sisi has failed to honour the promises of equality he made to us four years ago. We continue to experience discrimination in Egypt and … the attacks on us and our churches have increased”. He continued: “His government has failed to protect us. There are no rights for us here in Egypt and we are treated as second-class citizens.”

Emad Ahmed, 46, a Muslim driver from a village in Asyut, south of Minya, said he would not vote because of Sisi’s economic record, which critics say has prioritised mega projects such as a new administrative capital city over more immediate needs such as unemployment, poverty and energy shortages. Recalling the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ protests and the ouster of Mohamed Morsi two years later, he said: “After two revolutions, we are turning back instead of moving forward; we are suffering from the increase of the prices of all goods and there is no control over markets. We are heading for unrest.”

It’s the economy

Safwat Girgis, 38, a Christian lawyer from Minya, said he thought fewer Egyptians would vote for Sisi than did in the 2014 elections, because of “the lack of good health and education services, coupled with corruption, unresolved crises, high prices and taxation”. Samuel Naguib, a 32-year-old Christian carpenter from Asyut, agreed, saying Sisi had not taken steps to “achieve the dreams of the simple … and achieve social justice for them”.

Hassan Mohamed, 28, a Muslim teacher from Cairo, said Sisi’s efforts to fix the economy were too abrupt: “He wants to accomplish things that need decades in several months. So the Egyptian citizen now is like a person undergoing surgery without anaesthetic.”

Although Mohamed’s concerns are shared by Christians and Muslims alike, frustration with Sisi’s promises of economic improvement are believed to have helped fuel extremists’ antagonism towards Copts, which has increased since he took power.

“He wants to accomplish things that need decades in several months. So the Egyptian citizen now is like a person undergoing surgery without anaesthetic.”

Muslim teacher Hassan Mohamed

Terrorism 

Other voters criticise him for failing to prevent terrorist attacks. The Islamic State group is waging an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and has claimed responsibility for a string of deadly attacks – on a convoy of Christian pilgrims in Minya, on churches in Cairo, Tanta, Alexandria, and on a Sufi mosque, to name a few. Romany Ehab, 42, a Christian engineer from Cairo, said: “In contrast to his pledge to restore security, the bloody attacks that have left scores of people dead, or even hundreds, are repeated more frequently. The Coptic churches are being attacked even in the centre of Cairo, while the rebellion of the Sinai Bedouin tribes against the regime is taking on the dimensions of a civil war … at the expense of civilian lives.”

The blood-splattered pillars of St. George’s Cathedral have been left untouched (World Watch Monitor)
A suicide bombing at St. George’s Cathedral in Tanta on Palm Sunday 2017 killed 28 and injured 74 others (World Watch Monitor)

Some Coptic young people reject their Church’s alignment with the state. Mina Thabet, a social-science research scholar at Aberdeen University, told the news website Al-Monitor that priests are being used by the state to silence Copts. Imad Rida, a youth from Minya, told Al-Monitor: “Because of the clergy, Christian youths are now torn between the regime and the Church, which has resulted in many refraining from going to church.”

In 2003 the Coptic academic Sana Hasan addressed the Church’s apparently close relationship with the Egyptian president (then Hosni Mubarak) in her book, ‘Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt’. “The Pope [then Shenouda III] understands better than anyone that the Church is being manipulated by the Government for its own ends,” she wrote. “But he is forced into the embrace of the state, whose protection he needs for his people against the violent attacks of the Islamists.” She continued: “The regime … derives its legitimacy from one thing only: being an alternative to an Islamic rule… If the Islamic militants were not there, they would have to be invented to guarantee the regime both internal and external support.”

Loyalty 

However, other Copts interviewed by World Watch Monitor expressed praise for their president’s action on terrorism and the economy. Three priests contacted by World Watch Monitor voiced their support for him as a president for Copts and Muslims alike. Fr. Philopater Hanna, of Mar Girgis church in Aswan Governorate, in the south, said: “President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi does not need the support of anyone during the upcoming presidential elections, because his achievements are supporting him, as Egypt will witness in the coming period a state of unprecedented prosperity … and he has pursued terrorists in defence of his people.” Fr. Cherubim Ibrahim of St Michael’s church in Faiyum Governorate, north of Minya, praised his “efficiency and intelligence, and good management of the state”, adding: “Sisi is very patriotic and … Copts see him as a man of national unity; he is the moderate Muslim president who does not distinguish between the sons of the homeland [Christian or Muslim]. Copts of Egypt strongly support him.” Fr. Morcos Zaki, who said he would vote for Sisi, framed the election as a struggle between those who desired national unity and “traitors” who would stop Egyptians from voting – a reference to the Islamist extremists in 2014 who patrolled rural areas to prevent Copts from registering their support for Sisi.

Afaf Tharwat, 58, an accountant at a Cairo hospital, likewise said Sisi was the alternative to Islamist rule. “We will choose the courageous man … who saved us from the rule of the Brotherhood,” she said. Mina Khalaf, a shoe-shop owner in Minya, said: “President el-Sisi is the most capable of leading the state at this stage of its history, and to achieve stability for all state institutions.”

“President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi does not need the support of anyone during the upcoming presidential elections, because his achievements are supporting him, as Egypt will witness in the coming period a state of unprecedented prosperity … and he has pursued terrorists in defence of his people.”

Fr. Philopater Hanna

And Moussa Wagih, 46, a pharmacist in Sohag, south of Asyut, praised Sisi for cutting ties to Qatar, which the president – along with governments including those of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates – accused of funding terrorism. “[Sisi] has restored to Egypt its regional role in cooperation and coordination with its Arab brothers on various issues, especially the fight against terrorism that threatens our Arab homeland,”  Wagih said.

Some 490 out of 596 Egyptian MPs have backed Sisi’s candidacy. Magdi Melk, 55, a Christian MP for Samalut city, in Minya, and its surrounding villages, said whoever could not see Sisi’s achievements “under these difficult circumstances, while fighting terrorism and building a new Egypt and challenging the difficulties and restoring Egypt’s international standing and Egypt’s leadership of the Arab nation as it was – he is blind”.

“If the president was able to do all this in four years, this means that the second term of the presidency will transfer Egypt to the ranks of the developed countries, [and] eliminate most of the chronic problems suffered by Egypt, and fight terrorism and revive tourism,” he continued.

So instead of this month’s election offering a range of candidates and political outlooks, Egyptians are being offered one outsider and the choice to endorse Sisi or not – a process unlikely to improve faith in democracy. Fifteen years since Hasan’s analysis of why Egypt’s social divisions refuse to heal, and two revolutions and two presidents later, it seems as though little has changed since the long rule of Hosni Mubarak. Not only will the Christians’ votes make little difference to Sisi’s almost guaranteed win; they will also make little difference to their ongoing vulnerability.

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