ASSIUT, Egypt (AP) — Ahead of elections, Egypt's Coptic Church discreetly told followers to vote for an alliance of leftist and liberal parties sponsored by a Christian tycoon. The move by a Church normally wary of inserting itself into politics showed how deeply Egyptian Christians fear that Islamists will come to power.
The country's Christian minority turned out in droves for voting Monday and Tuesday in the first parliamentary elections since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February.
Many indeed said they had "voted for the eye" — a reference to the Egyptian Bloc, the coalition that the Church pointed to. Each party has a campaign symbol so that illiterate voters can identify their choices on the ballot, and the Bloc's symbol was the eye.
In pockets where their community is concentrated, the flow of Christians to the polls was strong. In the Cairo district of Shubra, men and women with cross tattoos on their wrists — a common tradition among Egyptian Christians — kept lines full through the day. White-haired elders, equipped with chairs and bottles of water for the long wait, waited with young men and women who took time off from jobs to get to the ballot box.
Almost all expressed a common motivation: Stop the Islamists.
"We are voting for liberal parties as a means of survival," said Farid George, a Christian in the southern city of Assiut. "Egypt is our country. My kids were raised here and I will die here."
The prospect of an Islamist victory in the election has Egypt's Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population of 85 million, terrified that one day strict Islamic law will be imposed. Talk of leaving Egypt has increasingly circulated among many Christians since Mubarak's fall, raising fears over the fate of a community that predates the coming of Islam to the country in the 7th century.
Islamist parties are expected to be the biggest winners in the election — likely to gain a plurality or even a majority in the new parliament. Most prominent is the Muslim Brotherhood, the best organized political force in Egypt. Christians are nervous enough about the Brotherhood, but even more daunting to them are the Salafis, ultraconservatives whose ideology is close to the puritanical doctrines of Saudi Arabia.
Assiut, a rural province with a capital of the same name 320 kilometers (200 miles) south of Cairo, has the biggest Christian population in the south. It also has a strong presence of Islamic hard-liners. In the 1990s, it was a main battleground between the government and Islamic militants trying to overthrow the state.
The Islamic Group, or Gamaa al-Islamiya, a former militant group that renounced violence and is now a political party, is believed to have been behind fliers distributed in Assiut warning that Christians were trying to block an Islamist victory and that "the enemies of Islam" must be countered at the ballot box.
"This is dangerous, very dangerous," George, a prominent businessman with several car dealerships in Assiut, said while talking about the fliers with his employees. George is himself a candidate in the vote, though not with the Egyptian Bloc. "I will not have a man in a beard tell me how dress my wife, how to raise my kids, how to run my business."
Under Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule, Christians — most of whom belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church — complained of discrimination by the Muslim majority and of a second-class status. Their general reaction only increased their ghettoization: They drew closer to the Church and relied on Mubarak to protect them. Mubarak did little to advance Christian civil rights, but his police state ensured certain lines were not crossed.
Now with Mubarak gone, the election turnout marks a shift for Christians: They increasingly feel they can't shelter isolated in a corner; they have to engage with the country and assert themselves.
"Our country has been stolen from us for 30 years, and we didn't feel like we lived in our own country," said Hani Mikhail, who runs the Citizenship League at the All Saints Church in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria. The league is a Church organization formed to spread awareness of citizenship rights.
"After the revolution this strange feeling came over us — the country started to feel like ours again and that we want to do something for Egypt."
The All Saints Church was hit by suicide bombers on New Year's, killing more than 20 people. Anti-Christian violence accelerated since Mubarak's fall, blamed by Christians on increasingly bold Islamists. Salafi preachers have spoken out against the building of churches and accused Christians of seeking to take over "Islamic" Egypt.
The Church's quiet backing of the Egyptian Bloc and other liberal factions highlights how it wanted to ensure the community's voice is heard.
The Coptic Church denies making any official endorsement. Reports of the list raised an outcry from Islamist groups who accuse the Church of meddling. Prominent Copts close to the Church leadership have defended the list in TV appearances — without confirming the Church issued it — pointing out that many parties are unknown so Christians needed guidance and that they have a right to ensure their interests.
The Bloc is made up of three liberal, secular-leaning parties, including one founded and financed by Naguib Sawiris, a Christian telecoms tycoon who is one of the country's richest men. The alliance is running a mix of Muslim and Christian candidates.
The Church leadership put the Bloc at the top of a list of candidates its advised Christians to vote for and distributed the list to the community through Youth Assemblies, according to multiple Coptic voters who received the list. The Assemblies are a church body that usually gives social guidance to youth. The list also circulated on Coptic Facebook pages.
Five days before the election, the third-highest church official in Assiut met with Youth Assembly heads and gave them the list to distribute, saying Christians must not split their vote, according to a person who attended the meeting. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Pastor Al-Qis Baki Sadaqa, head of the Anglican Church in Assiut, says he won't choose "out of religious motives" but will vote for "the person who is most qualified. That is modernity." He's voting for Muslims, though not the Muslim Brotherhood. He's not concerned about the Brotherhood, saying it's the most moderate of the Islamists. But Salafis, he says, are the more worrisome because of their "fanaticism" and "narrowmindedness."
"It's not only Christians who are in danger, but moderate Muslims," the 83-year-old pastor said.
Youssef Sedhoum, a prominent Coptic analyst, said he hopes the various liberal and secular factions in parliament will unite to balance the Islamists.
"They are in one boat, and they have to join ranks."
Michael reported from Cairo. AP correspondent Hadeel al-Shalchi in Alexandria contributed to this report.