In an unprecedented act of political activism and nationalism, Egypt's Coptic Christians participated in the monumental January 25th Egyptian Revolution. Despite years of political atrophy caused by the marginalization of the Coptic community, as well as discouragement by the late Pope Shenouda III to refrain from joining the protests, Copts felt it was a chance to finally have their voices heard.
But what is it that the Copts want? In sum, the elements of a true democracy: A secular state, religious freedom including the building of houses of worship, equal citizenship, and legitimate political representation. As it stands, the presidential run-off will be between politicians Ahmed Shafik, a candidate favored by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and a former prime minister under Mubarak, and Mohamed Morsy, the candidate backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
A major outcome of the first round of votes is an accusation against the Copts by some revolutionaries, Islamists and reportedly Morsy (the Egyptian Center for Human Rights has requested a formal investigation) of betraying the revolution by swinging the vote in favor of Ahmed Shafik. Such an accusation dismisses reports of the official vote count in each province, which showed the largest block of votes for Shafik was in the four governorates of the Delta, namely Sharkia, Gharbia, Menoufiah and Dakahila; areas where there are a low concentration of Copts.
In areas with the highest Christian populations, socialist/Nasserist Sabbahi led the polls. At play is the age old tactic of religious divide and conquer as well as threatening the Copts into either not casting a second vote for Shafik or not showing up to the polls, which would leave the vote weighing in favor of Morsy.
Unlike what the Islamists would have the people believe, the Coptic vote is not a determinant of whether the Copts are with or against the revolution. There is a diversity of political thought within the community, which was reflected in the distribution of votes among candidates Moussa, Shafik and Sabbahi. Neither did the Copts set out to vote as the Church dictated since the Church refrained from endorsing any one particular candidate and the acting Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Pachomius, disbanded any attempts by hierarchy to create committees that would advise the community on a candidate of choice. The Coptic vote in the elections is representative of a legitimate portion of the Egyptian national voice that is to be heard and not negotiated as a political game card or reduced to a whispering minority.
The Coptic constituency eligible to vote is 6 million strong out of what the government alleges is a population of 10 million (Church data reports 18 million while the Islamists claim the figure is less than 5 million). It is noteworthy that in 1986 the national census reported a sudden 55% decline in the population of Christians living in Egypt. It has been suggested that the national census has been politicized to under-represent the Coptic population. Even today the government will not release the actual number of Copts in the country, asserting that it is confidential state information.
As it has been said, the best way to make someone feel powerless is to convince them that they do not have any power at all. The Copts have long been convinced that they were too small a minority to ask for their rights let alone influence politics. They were simply something to be tolerated by the remaining majority of Egyptians and to Mubarak, their rights were to be negotiated; political allegiance to the regime for mediocre protection from violent Islamist groups and the permission to build a meager two churches per year.
But as the largest Christian group in the Middle East, the Copts constituted a formidable presence at the polls. This did not go unnoticed by candidates such as Moussa and Shafik. Moussa wisely directed a part of his campaign towards the Copts, completely aware that they were able to swing the vote. At the same time, Shafik agreed to be interviewed by phone on Los Angeles-based Logos TV, a satellite television station operated by the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Southern California & Hawaii. In his interview he promised to have a Coptic vice president and to employ the Copts in business decisions affecting the nation as he considers the Coptic community in Egypt to be highly educated. It was a clever and strategic move for addressing one of the largest Coptic communities in the diaspora.
If there is anything that the Copts have discovered in the last year and a half since the revolution, it is their voice and influence. In true democratic fashion, Copts marched in Tahrir Square and in the streets of their neighborhoods waving crosses, pictures of Jesus Christ, and the Bible. They held public prayers in Tahrir Square attended by scores of Christians and Muslims alike. The Copts joined the campaign to have the demarcation of religious affiliation removed from national identification cards. They came out to vote on a constitutional referendum to amend articles pertaining to presidential elections and the electoral process. Copts joined political parties, and started their own political groups such as the Maspero Coptic Youths Federation, in search of a better political future for their country.
The most notable mobilization by the Coptic community was at Maspero in October 2011. Although the protests ended tragically, the event shed light on the plight of Copts as one of national concern and not simply the concern of a minority group. Prominent Christian and Muslim journalists, activists, and television show hosts came together in protest at what became known as the Maspero Massacre. In the aftermath of the revolution, Copts saw a surge in religious sectarian violence. Churches were burned (St. George Church in Edfu, St. Mina in Helwan, 3 churches in Imbaba) and bombed (All Saints Church in Alexandria) in numbers higher than had been witnessed under the Mubarak regime. Coptic families were driven out of their homes in over eight cities and villages stretching from Alexandria to Upper Egypt as a result of false reconciliation meetings in Qena and Kobry-El-Sharbat. Copts have been issued life sentences in prison while their Muslim counterparts were acquitted (12 Copts and 8 Muslims in Abu Qurqas). Salafi preachers, who under Mubarak had been barred from appearing on national television, were back on the air preaching their hatred of non-Muslims and stirring more religious intolerance.
In spite of these challenges, the Copts bravely overcame and joined their fellow Egyptians in the hopes of building a democracy for their beloved country. The community has proven itself to be an influential voice that must be legitimately and fully recognized by the new government. If Egypt has any chance at genuine democracy, it can no longer continue to sideline its indigenous Coptic population.
Suzie Abdou recently provided commentary and analysis on the Egyptian elections for KPCC. She is the Director of Global Programs at Women's Voices Now and holds a Masters degree on International Relations from the University of California, Riverside.