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Egypt's Morsi and Shafiq Prepare for Presidency, But How Will Coptic Christians Fare?

Egyptian Presidential candidates Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq are set to go head-to-head this weekend in the country's landmark presidential elections, and many analysts are questioning what the fate of the Coptic Christian community will be under the leadership of either candidate.

Coptic Christians are a religious minority in Egypt who make up around 10 percent of the country's population of 85 million. For years, Copts have faced legal discrimination and sectarian attacks, resulting in their participation in last spring's protests on Tahrir Square to oust long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Like other political activists across Egypt, Copts protested Mubarak's rule in hopes of achieving a democratic state, as well as for further protections for their minority group. But now, as Egypt is set to conclude its first democratic presidential election in decades, citizens will be forced to chose between two candidates: Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood Party – who has not been shy about stating its desire for a more conservative state – and Shafiq, a former prime minister who served during Mubarak's authoritarian regime.

The Christian Post spoke to Kurt J. Werthmuller, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, earlier this month regarding a possible Morsi victory and what a Muslim Brotherhood win might mean for the Coptic Christian community in Egypt.

Werthmuller told CP that having a party like the Brotherhood control Egypt's executive branch as well as the "lion's share" of parliament would likely signal tighter social restrictions that could impact the entire population.

"(A) Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government would probably begin to institute tighter societal restrictions – on speech and press freedoms, on the arts, etc. This would impact all Egyptians negatively," Werthmuller said.

The expert also said that he believes that with Morsi holding the executive seat, religious freedoms would slowly but surely be curtailed through implementation of a more "strident role" for conservative interpretations of Sharia law. Variations of this could occur through the use of harsher and more frequently enforced apostasy laws to fight against conversions from Islam, and through increased use of anti-blasphemy laws that would stifle outward religious and intellectual dissent.

"In other words, a Morsi presidency would give more license to the Muslim Brotherhood to institute conservative Islamist policies in the country, and this would without a doubt make life more restrictive and discriminatory toward the Coptic Christian minority," Werthmuller explained.

Morsi has sought to silence his critics over such fears and has publicly promised Christians equal protections under the law – but many Copts aren't buying it.

"There is a Brotherhood strategy to work toward building an Islamic country," one Copt told The Associated Press.

"Our goal is a civil state. We don't see anyone else who can protect this except for him (Shafiq)," another Egyptian Christian told the news agency.

Political analysts are also confirming Coptic fears regarding Morsi, arguing that Egypt's Christians would fare better with a Shafiq victory. Although Copts faced their fair share of uncertainty and discrimination under the Mubarak regime, the levels of uncertainty, discrimination, and attacks against Christians have intensified since the former ruler was ousted from office – generating a sense of fear among believers.

Shafiq, 70, was the last appointed prime minister under the Mubarak regime and served for less than one month before Mubarak was ousted, but it is widely believed among experts that the former prime minister will keep the country from becoming Islamic, according to Werthmuller.

Despite Shafiq's direct ties to the old regime – and fears that his leadership would lead to a Mubarak-style authoritarianism – as a political candidate he has strongly spoken out against Islamists and Islamist policies, and has also made promises to prevent occurrences of mob violence against Christians, which reached a boiling point late last year.

"The majority of Copts voted for Shafiq," evangelical pastor Mina el-Badry told Christianity Today in May. "Not from love, but to oppose the Islamists because (Shafiq) is from the army and will know how to run the transition."

Because many Christians fear the country will be hijacked by Islamists and that they will lose their rights as a minority group, a majority have said that they will be backing Shafiq at the polls this weekend, but neither candidate has strong enough support from the Egyptian population as a whole to ensure a victory.

Further adding to the uncertainty of this weekend's vote is the country's highest court deciding to dissolve parliament. In addition, many activists, including some young Christians, have suggested boycotting the elections all together, as neither Morsi nor Shafiq will usher in the reformed Egypt revolutionaries had hoped for.

How Egypt's new president, be it Morsi or Shafiq, will face the country's polarized population and its newly dissolved parliament remains to be seen, but many fear that the months ahead will be rife with turmoil.

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