Christians Weigh Presidential Options as Egyptians Head to the Polls

As Egypt's first democratic presidential elections get underway Wednesday, the choices have narrowed down to two groups of candidates: Islamists and politicians once linked to former President Hosni Mubarak. Historically, neither of these groups have meant good news for the Christian community, but there are two secular candidates, Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, who experts agree would be better for religious minorities in Egypt.

If an Islamist president is elected in light of the mostly-Islamist parliament, religious freedom and the safety of the Christian community would be put in jeopardy, experts argue.

Moussa and Shafiq both served under Mubarak, who was ousted in Feb. 2011 following the Arab Spring revolution. These two non-Islamist candidates have become the most viable options for Coptic Christians, the largest Christian group in the Middle East and in Egypt, constituting about 9 percent of the country's population.

The issue is complex, according to Kurt Werthmuller, Research Fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom at Hudson Institute, a think tank.

The Copts have been suffering from legal discrimination for years, including under Mubarak, and violence against Christians occurred as recently as last October at the hands of state soldiers. Many fear that if an Islamist president is elected he will leave Egypt's discriminatory policies in place and be ineffective in preventing future violence against Christians from Muslim extremists or even the army. Whether a secular candidate would be able to achieve the opposite also remains a question, as he would likely receive pressure from the mostly-Islamist parliament, Werthmuller told The Christian Post.

The situation "does put Copts in an interesting predicament," he added.

Shafiq, the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak, is not the first choice of Coptic voters -- that title goes to Moussa, who cherishes the support of 85 percent of that group, according to a recent study. However, Shafiq has emphasized most strongly the messages many Christians want to hear -- promises of stability and security and vows to restrain conservative Islamic groups like the Salafists from influencing national policies.

"He's certainly speaking the strongest against the Islamists," Werthmuller told CP, adding that Shafiq has also promised to prevent mob violence against Christians, which is not uncommon in Egypt.

Moussa, former Egyptian foreign minister and secretary-general of the Arab League, on the other hand, has been openly "acknowledging the popularity of the Islamists," the research fellow said.

The presidential hopeful has not advocated for the removal of the article of the Egyptian constitution that established Sharia law as basis for legislation, but suggested that Sharia should only provide a loose template for governance. Moussa "can't quite [be] called a secular candidate per se," Werthmuller added. He is no Islamist, but he is not anti-Islamist either, he suggested.

Both Moussa and Shafiq are likely to remain non-Islamic presidents, presuming either one is elected, Werthmuller affirmed.

The presidential elections have the potential to not only change Egypt, but the entire Middle East, according to some experts. Egypt, as the largest Muslim country in the Middle East, has a deep influence on its Islamist neighbors.

"We see that in neighboring countries with Islamic leaders, Christians aren't safe," Father Pola Marqus of St. Mary's in Cairo recently told CBS News. "So we're concerned about getting an Islamist president too."

Carl Moeller, president of persecution watchdog Open Doors USA, told CP recently that persecution of Copts can "certainly become worse" if a more hardline Islamist was elected president.

Among the Islamist candidates with chances of winning are Mohammed Musri and Abdel Monein Abu al-Fotouh, both with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has called for a Sharia-based government.

According to election predictions, none of the four frontrunners are likely to win an outright majority when the polls close at 8 p.m. Cairo time on Thursday. To win, a candidate needs more than 50 percent of the votes. It is widely expected, however, that each of the leading candidates will win between 10-30 percent of the vote, according to NBC News. The station reports that Mursi could win 20-25 percent, Moussa 20 percent, and al-Fotouh around 20 percent, meaning a run-off would likely be required.

But polls have been inconsistent and, as Werthmuller said, unreliable as far as the exact results go. Another recent poll shows that moderate candidates Moussa and Shafiq are leading the race, followed by Musri and al-Fotouh.

Meanwhile, for Copts, there are short and long-term worries related to the results and what follows, Werthmuller told CP.

The short-term worry is occasional violence against members of the Coptic community, which Christian voters hope Shafiq can address.

The Egyptian law can be very arbitrary when Copts are involved, Werthmuller told CP. "Somebody can attack and even kill a Copt, and there's no legal accountability for it," he said. "Legal proceedings can be very arbitrary." Evidence can be lost and judges can simply reject a case, especially in the post-revolutionary institutional turmoil. "It is illegal in Egypt to kill someone. But in case of Copts, these cases are allowed to sip through the cracks."

The long-term concern is Islamists and the implementation of explicit interpretations of Sharia code, he said. Among laws seen as discriminatory against Copts are, for example, church building laws that make raising Christian houses of worship more difficult than raising mosques.

The real question lies in who will have the actual power in the country, the president or the parliament, Werthmuller maintained. "Presidential elections are important and groundbreaking" but "in a sense the real struggle for Egypt is going to be over the constitution," he said.

Regardless of the voting outcome, even the secular candidate will receive pressure from the parliament, he added, pressure to be "not necessarily pious, but to be more religiously inclined in his policy."

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