Mohamed Morsi won the presidential run-off against Ahmed Shafiq and became the new President of Egypt on June 30th. Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, is painfully aware of the limitations imposed on his office. On the one side, popular support to the Muslim Brothers declined sharply in the past year. Voters turned out en-masse to elect a new parliament. Yet, while Egyptians gave the Islamic movement an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, things took a different turn for the highest office of the country, about 10% of voters stayed away from presidential elections. Besides, Ahmed Shafiq - the candidate Morsi faced at the run-off and the last Prime Minister under Mubarak - enjoyed the support of those faithful to the old regime and garnered 48.3% of the vote. On the other hand, the military establishment made it clear that the president will not enjoy full powers since they will be in charge of many aspects of State administration.
After a few days in power, Morsi reconvened the National Assembly, which had been disbanded by the Constitutional Court. The Court declared some of the dispositions of the electoral law anti-constitutional because they contravened the principle of equality among candidates. Since the National Assembly had been elected based on such law, the Assemble lacked legitimacy. A similar ruling followed the 1987 and 1990 elections. The newly elected president had to back down, and accept the ruling of the Court, which has a long tradition of independence from political influence. The question now is how to solve the impasse and form a new National Assembly in a short time. The first matter at hand will be the drafting of a new Constitution. Certainly the Muslim Brothers will try to affect that process and review the status of the military. The power struggle between the Brotherhood and the military might last for years to come.
On the international scene, Egypt’s allegiances are under scrutiny. There are three main questions: relations with the USA, with Israel and with Iran. It is not by chance that US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, met Morsi on July 18th. The USA supports the military machinery and generously funds the annual budget of the government. The meeting ended with a mutual agreement. While sections of the Brotherhood called for a re-evaluation of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) remains determined to sustain the agreement. To make things clear, the SCAF recently decreed that a National Defence Council – formed mainly by soldiers - would determine any changes to Egyptian foreign policy for the foreseeable future.
Relations with Iran might prove more difficult to evaluate. The two Islamist movements – the Brotherhood and the Shiites – share some common ancestry. It was a Persian Shiite intellectual, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, whose teaching in Egypt revived the Islamic movement and influenced Hassan al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brothers. And it was the radical teachings of the Egyptian Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb that gave a rationale to the Shiites of Iran to fight the Shah. The man who translated Qutb’s works into Farsi was none other than Ali Khamenei, today’s Supreme Leader in Iran. The Muslim Brothers are divided on how to proceed when it comes to Iran. Some argue that the common revolutionary battle against Western values and Israel makes them natural allies. Others insist on the practical value of keeping their distance from Tehran. President Morsi, is tiptoeing through the elaborate relationship with Iran, trying to keep everyone happy.
On the home front, one of the big questions yet without answer is the fate of the Christians. Christians are a minority, making up 9% of the population. For years, they have been treated as second class citizens. They have also been the target of Islamic violence before and after Mubarak’s fall. Catholic Bishop Kyrillos William, administrator of the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate of Alexandria, expressed his hopes for Egypt’s Christians following the election of Mohamed Morsi. “The future will not be worse than what we have had before,” said he. Bishop William expressed his confidence that President Morsi will keep promises he made after the elections to govern for everyone regardless of religion. “In Egypt we all are Egyptians – whether Christians or Muslims – and the president has promised that there will be a Copt and a woman appointed as vice-presidents. Although we still do not know who will be appointed, we trust he will keep his word”. Bishop William said the post-election situation of the Christians in Egypt is not one of persecution – adding “it is better here than in many other countries”.
Pope Shenouda III, 88, head of the Egyptian Coptic Church and one of the most important personalities in Middle Eastern Christianity, died on March 17. He guided the Coptic Church since 1971, during a difficult time when Christians in Egypt faced recurring bouts of violence and the radicalization of the Muslim Brothers. For two days, Christians, but also many Muslims, paid their respect to Shenouda. The main streets leading up to the cathedral had been cordoned off by military police and officers from the central security forces. Thousands of mourners, many waving photos of the Pope – affectionately called Baba Shenouda - gathered behind crash barriers set up in the roads, while inside the cathedral some broke down in tears. More than 2000 personalities representing religious, political and military authority took part in the funeral, among them the Shaykh of Al-Azhar, the most important centre of Islamic theological studies of the Muslim world.
Born Nazeer Gayed in Upper Egypt to a devoutly Christian family, the Pope to be graduated with a history degree and later took the name of Father Antonios el-Syriani after becoming a monk in 1954. Ten years after being enthroned as the Pope of Alexandria in 1971, he had a major run-in with President Anwar Sadat, after which he was banished to a desert monastery for refusing to oversee a public Easter celebration. Throughout his reign, he worked hard to strengthen Copts’ identity and place within Egyptian society. He particularly pushed for the uplift of women and children, promoting education and on-going formation even in smaller villages throughout Egypt.
Baba Shenouda was also instrumental in uniting the Copts in the diaspora. He promoted the formation of clergy who could guide Copts communities around the world. He also encouraged the creation of monastic communities in Europe, the Americas and in Australia. Becasue of that, he was much loved by the faithful, and gained the respect of all Egyptians. Even though he was never shy in facing the government of the day and the military, he did not side squarely with one camp during the revolution that ousted President Mubarak. He feared that a sharp comment could fire back on his own community, especially against the youth.
The Coptic Church is now rudderless, exactly in a critical moment, when political decisions will certainly affect the community. The Synod will meet to discuss and propose a few names. Only monks and bishops who are not in charge of a diocese can be named at this point. When enough candidates will be proposed, only the three most voted will participate to the last step. A child will choose one of three pieces of paper where their names will be written. The chosen candidate will then become the next Pope of the Egyptian Coptic Church.
The procedure can be long; Shenouda was elected after eight months of work. This time, every one expects things to move quickly. The Coptic Church, the largest Christian community in the Arab world, needs a good leader, capable of steering the Church towards a stronger public presence. With ten million faithful, the Coptic Church is a strong minority in Egypt, yet Christians there are still considered lesser citizens. There are too many laws that discriminate against them, and they cannot even apply to build new churches. Besides, Egypt is about to elect a new president and all eyes are fixed on the Muslim Brothers to see which kind of society will they want to build. Many Christians are concerned about the advances being made by Egypt’s political Islamists.
'The people are afraid. The revolution has provided a historic opening for equality and freedom for people of all faiths in Egypt but the prospects for Christians depend on the future government'.Such were the recent remarks of Antonios Naguib, the Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria. In many respects they encapsulate the sense of deep uncertainty felt not just by Egypt's 250,000-strong Coptic Catholics but also the much larger Coptic Orthodox community who number up to 10 million - a mere fraction in a country of up to 86 million.
The 25th January Revolution that climaxed with the fall of President Hosni Mubarak may indeed have been followed by a wave of euphoria - a victory for sheer people power - but what followed showed that the Government may nip that bid for freedom in the bud. In fact, reports just out name Egypt among eight countries where restrictions on religious beliefs and practice have risen substantially. True, the report issued by the Pew Forum concerns the period before Mubarak left office, but with many of his key lieutenants still in place, it shows that there is genuine cause for concern. All the more so if, as feared, a coalition between Islamists and secularists emerges victorious in key parliamentary elections due this winter. Recent reports showing major cracks appearing in the coalition will do nothing to calm the fears of Christians. These past months have left them horrified by the scale of Islamism in Egypt, the extent of which was ruthlessly kept underground by Mubarak's hard-line security apparatus.
On a recent visit to Egypt for fact-finding and project assessment work with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, it was this sense of fear that seemed all-pervasive among the many Christian communities we met up and down the Nile. On one of the few occasions we departed from the great river that is Egypt's life blood, we travelled east from Cairo to Ismailia, out towards the Suez Canal. The region is inextricably linked with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political movement which has its roots here. The local bishop, Mgr Makarios Tewfik, told us: 'Under Mubarak, the Muslim Brothers were under Gestapo-style control. Now they are very visible. They may get up to half the seats in the next election. This is a great concern for us'.
The scale of the Islamist threat to the future of Christianity in Egypt became clear in a very tragic way on 7th May 2011 when extremists attacked churches in the Imbaba district of Cairo. The violence left 15 dead and more than 230 injured. It rekindled memories of the bomb blast that took place next to a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria on New Year's Day 2011. In that atrocity 20 people were killed and 70 were injured. The rise of Salafist extremists - no longer contained by Mubarak's notorious security apparatus - was a theme that constantly recurred during conversations we had with Christian communities. After Mass in a church outside Luxor we spoke to a family experiencing grave difficulties. With her husband and two children standing next to her, a middle-aged woman described how she was too afraid to go out in public without a head veil for fear of insults of worse from intolerant Muslims. She said that she and many others were denied jobs principally because of their Christian faith and that the threat of violent attack was too strong to ignore. She said: 'The Muslims tell us we should leave. They say that we do not belong here. There is no freedom for us Christians. We want to leave Egypt. We want to come to Europe.' Reflecting the threat of widespread emigration of Christians, Bishop Joannes Zakaria of Luxor described how when he announced that he was going to Rome for a conference some of his faithful begged to be bundled into his baggage and effectively smuggled out of the country.
The extent to which Christians are justified in their fears is difficult to assess. After all, there are, in the midst of all the difficulties, distinct signs of progress, especially more recently. For us they were symbolised by the graffiti we saw in a wall in central Cairo in which a red heart was flanked by the Cross and the Crescent. A more tangible sign of improvement came this summer when the interim military government that took over from President Mubarak announced proposals to scrap the rule that the President's permission is needed for churches to be built. Already the government has in effect relaxed the rules on church building. In an interview in June, Bishop Kyrillos William of Assiut reported that within a few weeks plans for three new churches had been approved with another favourable decision expected soon. He said: 'If these proposals come into law, it could mean that building churches will be almost on the same level as constructing mosques. What we are seeing here is one of the first fruits of the demonstrations back in January. When the Christians demonstrated, the first right they demanded was the construction of churches'. With Egypt's political situation in a state of profound uncertainty ahead of all-important elections, the die is far from cast and there is much for Christians to play for as a new country is built out of the old. Not for nothing has Patriarch Naguib called on his faithful to step out into the open and play their part in re-defining the place of Christianity at all levels in society - in law and government, economics and perhaps especially in the age of new technology the media in all its forms. His message is clear - Christians must speak up now and claim their rights. Could it be that the greatest thing they have to fear is fear itself?
John Pontifex is Head of Press & Information for Aid to the Church in Need UK www.acnuk.org