Islamist Victory: What Next for Copts, Liberals?

Youssef Sidhom

During the January revolution in Egypt many, including Christians, feared the worst. Behind the euphoria of courageous demonstrations for freedom lurked an Islamist threat believed to be anti-Western and anti-Christian. Nearly a year on, early results foretell its decisive victory. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is tagged to receive 40% of the vote, while the ultra-conservative Salafi Muslim coalition won an additional 20%. Liberal parties, socialists, and those connected to the former regime divided the rest among themselves. The early pessimism appears to be warranted.

Yet according to a leading Egyptian Coptic intellectual, Youssef Sidhom, editor-in-chief of the Coptic newspaper Watani, pause should be given before adopting this sentiment. Most important to realize is these early results pertain to only one-ninth of parliamentary seats. Due to Egypt’s complex election structure, the polls of November 28-29 included nine of twenty-seven governorates. Each governorate elects only one-third of seats through traditional single-winner competition. The remaining two-thirds are determined by proportional party vote, and these will not be revealed until after all three election stages have been completed. ‘Though Copts and liberal groups have been greatly disappointed,’ states Sidhom, ‘we must encourage their continued participation in the next two rounds.’

Yet it is true that preliminary results are not encouraging for those opposed to the Islamist project, as the greatest concentrations of liberal sentiment, including Cairo, were part of first round voting. Of concern is the current plan for parliament to draft Egypt’s new constitution. If an absolute Islamist majority rules, they may be able to pressure the military to ignore agreed upon principles to define Egypt as a civil state guaranteeing rights for all its citizens. An optimist by nature, Sidhom is prepared for this worst-case scenario. ‘If Egypt is hijacked into an Islamic state we will oppose this in the ratification referendum. If it is passed, Copts and liberals, representing 40% of the population, will take again to the streets. A parliamentary majority has the right to pass legislation, but the constitution, which governs legislation, should reflect the will of the whole nation.’

Nevertheless, Sidhom does not expect this dire outcome. Having participated in dialogue with Islamist leaders including the Muslim Brotherhood, he believes them to be ‘decent people’ despite the ‘vast area of mistrust which has not been overcome through their nice words’. He is puzzled by why Islamists reject efforts to craft a ‘Bill of Rights’ type document to bind all political parties to certain civil constitutional principles. Yet, ‘I believe the Muslim Brotherhood wants to prove they can create a type of democracy which respects the rights of all Egyptians. Perhaps they reject the document because they do not want it said they did so only by being forced.’

To ensure this result, Sidhom believes liberal parties must not adopt the role of opposition and reject Islamists in the upcoming parliament. Rather, as the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has intimated, they should join a coalition government. ‘This does not mean liberals give up their values, but instead represent their national duty not to leave the scene entirely for Islamists. In order to keep any vicious Islamist appetite at bay we must be at the table with them, to remind them they promised not to hijack Egypt.’

As for the Christian community, this is also a time of transition. Coptic turnout is estimated around 70%, exceeding the national percentage. Yet as Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Orthodox Church ages, the future is uncertain. Sidhom states, ‘Too many priests either encourage Christians to stay in the church, or else to go into the streets and fight.’ It is good Copts are operating politically independent of the church, he believes, but their manner of demonstration often does not reflect Christian values. ‘Copts do not know how to do this; our culture is hurting us now.’

As for whether or not Christians have gained anything since the revolution, Sidhom says, ‘I believe we should give democracy a chance to work. It is illogical to imagine changes by now, but this will rectify itself over time.’ He does not fear great sectarian troubles as in other countries, as long as Christians fulfill their responsibilities. ‘Egypt is not Nigeria or Lebanon; Copts are scattered throughout the whole country. Our only hope is to integrate completely into the political and social arenas.’

Sidhom’s hope will be put to the test in the coming few years. May his vision prove true, over much prevailing fear.


note: This text was written following the close of the first round election phase. The third and final phase begins in a few days.

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