Copts fear future under Islamist rule
Report by Gerald Butt in the Church Times of 10 August 2012
THE formation of the first Egyptian government under a freely elected President has failed to ease the fears of the country's Christians that their future in the country might not be assured under Islamist rule.
Complaints that the new cabinet contains only one Christian came against the background of Coptic-Muslim clashes in a town south of Cairo, and an attack by Islamist militants on a border post, in which 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed.
After the new cabinet had been sworn in by President Mohamed Morsi, the Prime Minister, Hisham Qandil, said that it was time for Egyptians "to stop asking who is a Copt, a Muslim, or a Salafi. I don't see that. All I see is that we are all Egyptians, and this should be the main principle." This might be the ideal, but such reasoning ignores the fact that the overwhelming desire thus far in democracies in the Middle East has been for representation, first and foremost, on a sectarian basis. This has been the case most obviously in Lebanon and Iraq, and the pattern is now continuing in Egypt.
Salafists complained that their strong showing in the parliamentary elections was not reflected in the apportioning of cabinet posts - they received none. Muslim Brotherhood supporters feel aggrieved that only two of their members have become ministers, despite their overwhelming political success. And the Copts are unhappy at the appearance of only one Christian in the cabinet.
"It is not right that Copts get treated in this way," the acting head of the Coptic Church, Bishop Bakhomious, told a Cairo newspaper. "We had expected an increase in the representation of Copts. The way the cabinet has been formed is not fair on us."
The new government is composed mostly of technocrats, who have the task of trying to lift the country out of its economic quagmire. The military is holding on to the defence portfolio. Egyptian Christians' unhappiness at the cabinet composition is an indicator of their lack of confidence in the new democratic system. Even though President Morsi has sought to assure them of their future in the new Egypt (News, 20 July), they feel that only their own strong representation in government will safeguard their interests.
"The general climate is turning against Christians," a senior figure in the Coptic Church, Bishop Morcos, said in an interview with the French news agency AFP. "Assaults on Christians have increased. It's not just a matter of having one min-istry."
Bishop Morcos was referring to the latest clashes between Copts and Muslims, in the small town of Dahshur last week. They began after an argument between two men became violent. In the subsequent uproar, a Muslim man was allegedly burned to death by a Copt. This led on subsequent days to attacks on a church and Christian prop-erties. Hundreds of Copts fled for safety.
The arrival of troops eventually established order, but not before Copts had held protests outside the presidential palace in Cairo, criticising the Islamist-led government. President Morsi ordered the authorities to take steps to prevent a repeat of the incident, adding that they should "never allow anyone to attack public or private property or terrorise any Egyptian citizen".
Last Sunday's attack by Islamist militants on a military post on Egypt's border with Israel, in which 16 Egyptians soldiers were killed, has added to the unease of Christians; for, although the assault sought to target Israelis rather than Copts, the reappearance of such ruthless groups is a further destabilising factor in the country.
During the revolution, dozens of convicted Islamist militants were freed from prison. Salafi and Jihadist groups appear to be interpreting the success of Islamists at the ballot box, and in the presidential election, as a licence for them to pursue their own agendas.
Keeping such groups in check will be at least as difficult for President Morsi and his advisers as trying to ease the military off the political stage. At the same time, he will be hard pressed to prevent the country's fledgling democracy from turning into a slanging match between sectarian factions.