A new Egyptian government must work for the good of all its citizens, regardless of their religion.
Over the weekend, the Muslim Brotherhood’s new party, Freedom and Justice, took 36.6 per cent of the vote in Egypt’s first round of parliamentary elections. Al-Nour, a more radical Islamist party came second with 24 per cent. The outcome of the elections thus looks set: Islamists will hold the controlling power in any new and democratic Egypt.
This outcome should not come as a surprise: persecuted by the Egyptian state for many years, Islamists have been able to unite in a political opposition movement that is far better organised than many of its secular and liberal counterparties.
The great question on the minds of many Western leaders is whether, after its own experience of disenfranchisement and oppression, the Muslim Brotherhood will be able and ready to tackle the deep social unrest and factionalism now plaguing Egypt’s future. Furthermore, having won the right to full participation in Egyptian society, will it now grant that same right to religious minorities that hitherto have been denied the same privilege.
The measure of a true democracy is not just how well it represents the will of the majority, but also by how effectively it safeguards the fundamental rights of minorities within the population.
On the evidence of the past nine months, Egypt has been on course to fail this test with dangerous consequences. Some nine million of Egypt’s citizens, over 10 per cent of the population, are Christians. For them, the “Egyptian Spring” that began in February has not brought tangible benefits; if anything their situation, already severe before the revolution, has worsened.
Under President Hosni Mubarak, Christians suffered significant discrimination at both the state and the extra-judicial level. The right to build a church was dependent upon presidential decree; Muslim converts to Christianity found it impossible to obtain ID reflecting the fact; and discrimination against Christians in the public sphere was endemic.
Unsurprisingly, Egypt’s Christians played a full and active role in the February revolution that forced President Mubarak from power. Amongst other notable acts, Christians established a field hospital to treat the wounded in Tahrir square and numerous images showed Muslims and Christians holding hands whilst chanting a common refrain of the revolution, “Muslims, Christians, we are all Egyptians”.
In spite of this, however, the solidarity of Egypt’s Christians with their fellow citizens has not been rewarded. Sources inside the country report that discrimination against Christian children, often by their own teachers, carries on unchecked. Getting a good job as a Christian in the workplace is still as hard as ever. It remains impossible to build a church legally, and converts to Christianity still cannot obtain legal recognition of that fact.
And this is not the end of the story. So high is anti-Christian feeling running in the new Egypt that twice in the past six months, clashes have taken place which have left scores of Christians dead. Worse is the fact that this violence is not merely sectarianism gone mad, still less the subversive influence of “foreign agents”, as the authorities in Egypt so frequently claim. There is very good evidence to suggest that state security forces have not just been negligent in their handling of Christian protests, but have actually been engaged in bloodletting themselves. Unlike with the most recent round of Egyptian protests, however, this violence elicited no apology from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), still less any promises to reform.
On Sunday October 9, clashes between Christian protesters and state security forces left 25 Christians dead. Video footage taken during the event appears to show military personnel firing live rounds at protesters and driving armoured vehicles headlong, and at speed, into crowds.
The bloody irony of this episode rests in the cause of the Christians’ original protest, which was to see justice over the authorities’ failure to intervene when a local mob numbering 1,000 attacked the church of St George in the city of Aswan on September 30. More than a month prior to the attack, a mob had blocked all roads into the village and demanded work on the church building be halted. Further violence was very likely.
This sequence of events was mirrored in a previous incident on May 14 when 60 Christians were injured while protesting outside Egypt’s state television building. They were protesting at state inaction following attacks on the Saint Mina Coptic Church in Imbaba. In that instance, thousands flocked to the area and 12 died in firebomb attacks and fighting. Security forces were not present at the scene for at least three hours after initial calls for assistance were made.
The readiness with which Christians have been assaulted in the months following Hosni Mubarak’s downfall does not auger well for the future character of Egyptian democracy. The complicity of the state in this discrimination and violence likewise suggests that even if Egypt does achieve a transfer to civilian government, the country’s Christians will remain firmly entrenched as second-class citizens.
This is why action by all those concerned for Egypt’s future, and not just the future of its Christians, is urgently needed. The February revolution and transition towards democratic elections has presented a narrow window of opportunity within which to effect meaningful political reform in Egypt for the first time in decades. If that window is allowed to close without genuine steps being made to consolidate the rights of Egyptian Christians as equal citizens, and to hold those guilty of violating this to account, it is hard to see when or how it will be opened again for the foreseeable future.
Recognising this fact, the British Government should be working with the United States, allies within the European Union, and other concerned democracies, to make it clear that violence against minorities can have no place in Egyptian society if trade, diplomatic and tourism links are to continue unaffected. A first step towards dramatically improving the situation would be to ensure that all sectarian, religious and hate-based crimes are prosecuted justly under formal law.
Equally important will be guaranteeing that victims of these crimes are not subsequently implicated in them, as has been the case and a cause of protests by Christians in recent months. Putting in place mechanisms to actually enforce such a change will also be essential. Second, the new Egyptian Government should be compelled to honour its obligation to respect religious freedom under international statutes to which it is a signatory, legalising religious conversion and reforming legislation to ensure that discrimination does not take place, for instance in the building of public places of worship.
If, as seems likely, the Freedom and Justice Party comes to power in Egypt, it has a significant job to undo the systemic causes of oppression against minorities that has been allowed to flourish over the past quarter century in Egypt. The case must be clearly made to any elected government that such reforms are strategically essential.
If the revolutions that have swept across the Arab world this past year have taught us anything, it is that governments can only suppress the rights of their citizens for so long before instability breaks out. A fragmented and even conflict-riven Egyptian society will be in nobody’s best interests.