A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cause for Concern: Blaming the Copts for Shafiq

I'm working on a number of longer posts on the implications of the Egyptian elections, but one particular theme that has emerged in recent days is cause for serious concern: a tendency on the part of some Islamists and also secular liberals and others to blame Egypt's Coptic Christians for the resurrection of Ahmad Shafiq's political career.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights has urged the Attorney General to investigate statements by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party that seemed to blame Copts for Shafiq's running second and thus making it into the runoff; FJP candidate Muhammad Morsi is one of those whose remarks it cited, but today Morsi sought to reassure Christians, saying "Our Christian brothers, let's be clear, are national partners and have full rights like Muslims,"and promising Copts would be included as advisers in his Presidency and that the Vice President, who would not be from the FJP, might also be a Copt.

The FJP's Facebook page had earlier quoted losing Presidential candidate Muhammad al-Ashal as linking the Copts to Shafiq's "mysterious" rise, and many Christian activists have suggested the blame campaign is aimed at intimidating Copts from voting for Shafiq in round two.

But it isn't just the Brotherhood and other Islamist movements who have been blaming the Copts. So have liberals and revolutionaries who feel the Copts should have supported liberal candidates rather than Shafiq. Liberal blogger/activist  "Sandmonkey" Mahmoud Salem has responded in a post called "Don't blame the Copts":
The Blame Game started immediately, and despite revolutionary infighting between the supporters of various revolutionary candidates that never quite made it, they all seem to agree on one point: The Copts ( also insert: The Church) have screwed the revolution over with their voting choice. It goes without saying that this rhetoric is very immature and dangerous for the Coptic population, and will lead to further polarization amidst the revolutionary ranks, and that they are better suited to finding out why that happened and try to court that vote, instead of entrenching that belief further. In reality, their choice of vote, while unfortunate, is very logical and should not be blamed for it, and to paint them as traitors after being the population that suffered the most after this revolution is nothing short of latent sectarianism and ignoring the facts.
He then reviews the history of Copts and the revolution. Whether the critics are liberals or Islamists, their analyses are based on a general impression that a large majority of Copts voted for Shafiq. While Salem quotes an estimate of 85% of Copts voting for the former Mubarak stalwart, not everyone agrees:
It is noteworthy that the largest portion of votes won by Shafiq came from the Nile Delta region, which does not contain a large Christian population.

As for other provinces where Coptic populations are concentrated, such as Cairo and Alexandria, the polls were led by Sabbahi, while Morsy finished first in Minya and Sohag.

Commentators say that it is a mistake to consider Copts as a politically unified electorate, and argue that Christians, like the rest of Egyptians, hold different political orientations varying according to social, economic and intellectual factors.
True, that comment appears in The Egypt Independent's report on the EOHR complaint, and the paper is affiliated with Al-Masry Al-Youm, which is ultimately part of the media empire of Naguib Sawiris, the media billionaire and outspoken Copt. But the point is that no one is sure what proportion of the Coptic vote went to Shafiq. Cairo, which has one of the country's biggest Coptic populations, went for Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, (As for the Delta, which indeed has few Copts, it went so heavily for Shafiq because he carried Mubarak's old home base of Menufiyya overwhelmingly, with Sharqiyya and other Delta provinces close behind.)

The point should be, though, that even if Copts did indeed vote overwhelmingly for Shafiq, and even if that support was enough to catapult Shafiq to second place ahead of Sabahi (and this second premise s by no means proven either: there are many allegations of irregularities and questions about expanded voter rolls still in play), where else would the Coptic vote have gone. They were surely not going to vote for an Islamist; they may have to learn to live with one, but nothing in their recent experience suggests they will prosper under Islamist rule. As for the revolutionaries' complaint that they shou;d hjave voted for a "liberal" candidate, the simple answer is, which one was that? Of the 13 candidates, there were at most two or three real liberals, and they never had a chance: why throw away one's vote? Of the five candidates who, in the end, split the vote among them — Morsi, Shafiq, Moussa, Abu'l-Futuh, and Sabahi &emdash; only one, Abu'l-Futuh, claimed to be a liberal, and he was also pledged to implementing shari‘a and is a former Muslim Brother. Sabahi, the Nasserist, would have some appeal (and Copts generally remember the Nasser era favorably), and Sabahi does seem to have done well with Coptic voters. Of the two fallul (old regime) candidates, Moussa and Shafiq, Shafiq was the law-and-order man, and as Sandmonkey's analysis noted, the Copts have suffered multiple church-burnings and the Maspero killings since the revolution, and may be yearning for law and order. (Though insofar as Shafiq is really the candidate of Mubarak's old NDP elite, the Copts did not fare well in the last years of NDP rule.) He was hardly an ideal candidate,but he does have a logical appeal for a minority feeling increasingly besieged under the growing insecurity and Islamist activism since the revolution.

If Copts did vote overwhelmingly for Shafiq, they presumably did so as individual voters with individual political views and priorities, but also with concern for the security of their own religious community. Also, presumably, the motivations behind those who voted for Morsi. Any attempt during the runoff campaign to paint Copts as either a threat to Islam (which is ludicrous given their minority numbers) or to the revolution (which has hardly been pro-active in defending Coptic rights) would merely increase the dangers of greater sectarian violence. Shafiq could not have gotten to the runoff with Coptic votes alone. If he's the candidate of anyone, it's SCAF and the old NDP business elites, plus the security services. Blame them if one must blame someone.

In any event, the runoff election is already the most polarizing choice imaginable: the Brotherhood versus someone widely seen as a Mubarak clone. Overlaying an already polarized and dangerous situation with a sectarian component throws fuel on a fire. Egyptians of all political and religious orientations will be ill-served by that.

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