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Who can reassure the Copts?

The rise of political Islam in Egypt is associated with many dark moments for the Egyptian Copts who existed as second class citizens for centuries still suffering from discrimination and threats on their life Mina Rezkalla  Since the January 25th Revolution in Egypt, various western media outlets and Middle East experts have offered competing visions of a post-Mubarak Egypt, the vast majority of them promoting an idealized view of the country as a democratic nation embracing Western values and principles, without truly searching for the roots of such a political culture in the country’s history or current political landscape. This overly optimistic view was recently shattered by the outcome of the first and the second rounds of parliamentary elections which resulted in an impressive victory for Egypt’s leading Islamist movements, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Salafis.  The time has come for Egyptians to ask themselves where they are taking their country, and Egyptian Copts in particular must consider their status as a community within Egyptian society. How will they fare in a post-Mubarak Egypt, and how will they avoid the same fate suffered by Iraqi Christians after the fall of Saddam, or that of Egyptian Jewry under the rule of Gamal Abdal Nasser?  After an analysis of the recent elections, it is clear that the Copts may face their serious concerns in the new Egypt. The rise of political Islam in Egypt is associated with many dark moments for the Egyptian Copts who existed as second class citizens for centuries still suffering from discrimination and threats on their life.  This experience has also been shared by minority Christian communities in other Muslim countries. This explains why these populations have either sided with the existing regimes or taken a conservative stance toward these revolutions. They know they will be the victims if radical change leads to new forms of totalitarianism in an Islamic color or political chaos in this sectarian atmosphere. Sadly, since the fall of the  Egyptian regime and the deteriorating security situation, attacks against Christians have increased, and while they remain mere statistics for the media, they embody the very fears held by these communities for many years. In a very real way, the Copts are becoming the “firewood of the revolution.”  . Vote for your life When the parliamentary election campaigns started, Copts found themselves automatically aligned with the Egyptian Block, a coalition of liberal and socialist parties, against the Islamist movements represented by the Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Noor Party. At the time, a friend of mine and Coptic activist told me that he had never in his life seen Copts relying on the Church to this extent for guidance on how to vote. The consensus soon emerged among Copts that avoiding an Islamist victory was the first priority, and so the Church recommended – unofficially - that its constituents vote for the Egyptian Block. The Copts soon realized the futility of their efforts when the results of the first round were announced. Who are the political players and who can reassure the Copts? 1- The Egyptian Block: a coalition consisting of the Free Egyptians Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and the National Progressive Unionist Party. Understandably, the Copts were seduced by the slogans of this coalition, which consistently promote a secular state based on the rule of law and not on religious affiliation. At the same time, one must wonder what sorts of compromises were necessary to allow a “liberal” party to enter in a coalition with a socialist party. They most probably did not discuss economics much if at all, as the only idea that they have in common is their role as the “anti-Islamist” political force. Without a larger political project to attract voters more concerned with building the “New Egypt” than nice sounding slogans, the coalition was not able to muster many votes outside the Coptic community. Unfortunately however, these slogans have not helped the Copts at all. For many years Coptic Christians have suffered various kinds of persecution; however the biggest problem was not the lack of initiative on the part of the government in dealing with these issues, but rather the failure of the elite’s discourse to address them. The secular elite can be divided into two main groups, the first of which deny that there are real sectarian problems in Egypt. They interpret previous and current attacks against Copts primarily as a by-product of the socio-economic problems afflicting the country, namely poverty and ignorance. They assume the issue has no cultural historical roots in Egypt and will disappear automatically with the spread of economic prosperity. The second group argues that it is the Egyptian regime, currently the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), or some foreign conspiracy that instigates violence against the Copts. Both views reveal an ignorance of the historical roots of these sectarian issues. People arguing in favor of either camp find it satisfactory to make appearances in the media after every attack in order to promise the Copts that it will be the last attack. It is always tempting to believe these words even if we are constantly worrying about the next assault. 2- The Islamists: The true victors of the first rounds of parliamentary elections and a source of constant fear for the Copts. Everything we have been trying to achieve, from spreading the rule of law, to curbing sectarianism and religious violence, fell apart as we watched the radicals gain more and more seats in the new parliament. This was a victory to which they were in all honesty entitled, considering the fact that the totalitarian aspect of their political project was matched only by the superficiality of their opponents’ liberal discourse. The elections proved to be the hour of reckoning for the members of the latter camp, who were unable to rival the Islamists in speaking to the issues really concerning voters, be they material or imaginary. When the elections started, neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Salafist party exerted any efforts to fix their image within the Coptic community, as they knew that Copts would not be their first audience. This changed when the Muslim Brotherhood needed support from Coptic voters in the runoff elections, and some districts witnessed competition between the MB and the Salafist party It is here that I remember the words of my friend Michael, a Coptic engineer living in Alexandria who told me “I never expected that I would vote for the MB, and when I did in order to avoid the Salafis, I felt Egypt was no longer my country.” Before the elections, the MB’s position on the Coptic question was no different from that of the state, namely that extremists on both sides, Muslim and Christian alike, were to blame for the sectarian strife, even if the overwhelming majority of the victims were Copts. The Salafis’ perspective puts all of the blame on the Copts while they find a wide range of pretexts to incite hatred and violence against this community. To cite but a few examples, they allege that Copts are seeking to divide Egypt and create their own state, or that Copts are helping the Zionists implement their conspiracy against Islam. On October 10, a Salafist television channel (Al-Nass) notably aired some political commentary on the Maspiro massacre in which 27 Copts were killed and more than 300 were wounded, presenting the incident as part of a conspiracy designed to lure the United States into invading the country in support of the Copts. Beyond the underlying blend of anti-Semitism and prejudice against the Copts inherent in these discussions, the Salafist media do not hesitate to brand us explicitly as infidels, sowing hatred as they deliberately represent these false allegations as facts whenever they discuss Coptic issues. But as far as the real objective of the Islamists vis-à-vis the Copts, I would say they do not really wish to annihilate them or even expel them from Egypt as Nasser did to Egypt’s Jewry.  However, they do intend to keep the Copts as second class citizens who should be grateful for the status they have already attained.  Perhaps, this is only wishful thinking on behalf of my Coptic family, still in Egypt. 3- The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) Since Mubarak stepped down in February of 2011 ceding all of his executive power to SCAF, the council has demonstrated that they are either unprofessional and have lost control of their forces ( I would say that ), or that they are directly implicated in the crimes committed by the military. Just a few days had passed since Mubarak’s resignation before the military conducted a brutal assault on the Monastery of Saint Beshoy on February 23 which killed one monk and injured six employees of the church. According to an official statement released by the army, the monastery had built a wall on state property illegally, however there was no investigation as to why the military reacted extra-judicially and with such violence. Egyptian Copts had barely recovered from this atrocity before they learned of others which have persisted on a monthly basis, culminating with the Maspiro massacre in which 27 Coptic protestors, among them friends of mine, were killed at the hands of the army. While I do not believe that SCAF gave orders to kill the Copts that day, these soldiers are still part of a society with deep seated hatred against the Copts and are still exposed to the mentality that justifies the burning of churches and murder of non-Muslims.   It is clear to me, that the Copts may not have a viable political option in Egypt.  Unfortunately, what I have seen and experienced in Egypt awakened me to the reality that ordinary Egyptian Muslims are incited to hate their Coptic neighbors from an early age.  Many Copts now wonder if they have a future in Egypt at all.  Many of us have grown discouraged in the face of a bleak future and we are weary of those who try to reassure us that our situation will improve. Mina Rezkalla: is a legal researcher at Egyptian union of liberal youth Intern at Hudson institute

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