Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s Feb. 11 decision to step down after 18 days of protests has many observers worried about the implications for religious minorities, especially Coptic Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of the Arab nation’s 80 million population.
Of particular concern is what could happen if the Muslim Brotherhood, considered to be the best organized and most influential political organization in Egypt, gains a significant share of power in a post-Mubarak regime.
Muslim Brotherhood members said throughout the recent uprisings that they were just seeking to have a role in a more democratic government, and that they were not interested in imposing Shariah, or Islamic law, in Egypt. The group’s English website said that its members “seek to share in the debate sweeping [Egypt] and to be part of the resolution, which we hope will culminate in a democratic form of government.”
However, Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center on Religious Freedom, said the Muslim Brotherhood’s Arabic website still says the organization’s goal is to create an Islamic state in Egypt, with the ultimate ambition of living under a single Islamic nation in the world.
“What this means is that Christians could be stripped of their citizenship,” said Shea, adding that the organization’s track record of governance in the Gaza Strip and northern Sudan indicate that Egypt would become an “intensely Islamicized” country, with dire consequences for non-Muslims.
Halim Meawad, the secretary of the executive board for Coptic Solidarity, a Virginia-based organization devoted to raising awareness and defending human rights on behalf of the Copts, said it would be a “nightmare” if the Muslim Brotherhood gains control of the Egypt’s presidency or parliament.
“We have to pray that they don’t take power,” Meawad said. “This should be a concern for the United States, the West, all the neighboring countries of the Middle East and the entire world, given the strategic location of Egypt.”
However, Ashley McGuire, director of programs for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said it was too early to speculate on what could happen to the Copts and other religious minorities, even if the Muslim Brotherhood gains power.
“There is a range of perspectives within the Muslim Brotherhood,” McGuire told Our Sunday Visitor. “It’s tricky and very speculative. The Muslim Brotherhood is not necessarily a group in lock step with one another.”
Observers note that Copts and other religious minorities in Egypt were already in a precarious situation in recent years under Mubarak’s government.
In the last decade, Christians in Egypt were frequently harassed, assaulted and even killed, often without impunity. Government officials prevented Copts from building churches or making repairs to current structures. They were usually discriminated for jobs in the government, scapegoated by the state press for the country’s social ills and left vulnerable to mobs of Islamic radicals.
“The status quo for Christians was very bad before these uprisings,” McGuire said. “It’s important to remember: Egypt has already had elements of Shariah law in place. A convert to Christianity, for example, can find it difficult to change their religious affiliation on their national I.D. card.”
On New Year’s Day, a suicide bomber attacked a Coptic church in Alexandria, killing 23 people and wounding nearly 100. A few years ago, 21 Copts were killed in a tiny village outside Cairo, said Meawad, adding that none of the assailants — said to be Islamic fundamentalists — were convicted at trial.
However, even with well-documented human rights violations under Mubarak, the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood governing an Islamic state in Egypt prompted Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Church, to call for an end to the protests earlier this month. He warned of “increasing losses resulting from ongoing protests, a deteriorating security situation and the intimidation of citizens,” adding that the instability “may hinder development in Egypt.”
“Coptic leaders are concerned that if there was a regime change, their rights would be undermined, and their situation further deteriorate,” McGuire said.
Shea added that the Mubarak government took some steps after the New Year’s bombing to protect Christians, who were also aided by their moderate Muslim neighbors who formed “human chains” to protect them from further attacks.
“There is something to lose here for [Christians],” Shea said. “I think what we’ve seen in other revolutions is that things are very unpredictable. You’re playing high stakes poker hoping that the moderate elements rise within the Muslim Brotherhood. But it’s very likely, judging from history, that the revolution could be seized by the most radical elements.”
Tom Doyle, the Middle East director for E3 Partners, a Christian missionary relief organization that works in Egypt and the surrounding region, said there are fears that Copts, other Christians and non-Muslims would be forced to pay special taxes and experience more intense forms of discrimination, including the loss of legal status as protected persons.
“What’s happening concerns me because throughout the Middle East, whenever there is a power vacuum, there are always hard-line Muslims that move to take control of the government,” Doyle told OSV. “I pray for the Christians there. If things move toward political radical Islam, Egypt will be a re-creation of Iran, just to the south of Israel.”
Signs of hope
However, McGuire noted, there are some signs of hope that Muslims, Christians and members of other religions could coexist peacefully. Earlier this month, a group of Coptic demonstrators worshipped during an open-air Mass at Tahrir Square in Cairo, in part to counter claims by state television that the anti-Mubarak protesters were Muslim Brotherhood members. The Christians were surrounded by Muslim clerics, who joined voices with their Christian counterparts in chanting the Lord’s Prayer.
“It has been quite remarkable to see the cooperation between Muslims and Christians at the grass-roots levels,” she said. “At the very fundamental levels of society, there is a lot less animosity between those groups. One hopes that those Muslims aspire to live in a society where their Christian neighbors are safe.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.
Gaining Influence (sidebar)
The Muslim Brotherhood — which boasts a membership of 600,000 — has ingratiated itself into the slums and poorer villages by providing some social services and medical treatment that the Egyptian government did not. Halim Meawad of Coptic Solidarity said those activities are meant to camouflage their true interests of furthering political Islam.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to polish their image, but they have not given up their Islamic principles,” Meawad said. “You can just imagine what the conditions would be like if they take over when you remember how things were under Mubarak, who claimed to run a secular government.”