In Egypt, Muslims Pledge to Guarantee the Rights of Coptic Christians

By Patrick Goodenough | June 11, 2012 | 5:12 AM EDT

Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi, seen here conferring with an aide, is locked in a tough race against former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)

( – With just days to go before Egypt’s post-revolutionary president is elected, the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to allay concerns of Coptic Christians about the implications of an Islamist victory, pledging to guarantee their rights.

But religious freedom advocates say Copts are skeptical and fearful, noting that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi has vowed to implement Islamic law (shari’a) – a stance also favored by 60 percent of Egyptian respondents in a recent Pew Global Attitudes Project poll.

The Muslim Brotherhood already dominates the post-Mubarak parliament, with a smaller Islamist group, the Salafist Nour party, holding the second-largest number of seats.

Morsi and the presidential candidate who came a close second in the first round of voting on May 23-24, former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, are competing in the deciding runoff this weekend.

Preliminary results from expatriate voting at diplomatic missions abroad, released Sunday, give Morsi a large lead over his rival.

Although only about 250,000 expatriates voted – compared to 51 million registered voters (24 million of whom voted in the first round) – the results showed Morsi more popular by far among Egyptians abroad, especially those in Gulf states, where the largest numbers of expatriates live. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Morsi secured ten times more votes than Shafiq.

In the first round of voting the Coptic Church did not officially endorse any candidate, but members of the Christian minority generally supported non-Islamist aspirants. According to a Coptic voter trends survey, the Christian vote was split among Shafiq and the candidates who came third and fifth respectively, revolution supporter Hamdeen Sabahi, and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.

According to the Barnabas Fund, an aid agency working among Christian minorities in Muslim countries for the past two decades, Egyptian Christians have been accused since the first round of being “traitors” for supporting a man associated with the Hosni Mubarak regime. (The reference was to Shafiq, although Moussa was also Mubarak’s foreign minister for a decade).

“Islamists in the country are blaming Christians, who comprise around ten percent of the population, for voting for Shafiq and thereby putting him in the running for president,” it said in a briefing.

The Assyrian International News Agency, which focuses on issues relating to Christian minorities in the Middle East, quoted a Coptic youth activist as saying, “We have been bombarded by the media by accusations from the revolutionary youths and prominent Islamist leaders. Our friends at college, work and our neighbors all accuse the Egyptian church of high treason by directing Copts to vote for Shafiq.”

On Sunday, the websites of both the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, were highlighting comments by Coptic church figures saying such things as “Christians do not fear the Muslim Brotherhood, because their history with Copts has always been honorable.”

They also quoted Brotherhood officials as pledging to safeguard the “full rights” of Copts.

Barnabas Fund noted the attempts by Morsi to court the support of Christians and women in particular in the June 16-17 runoff, but also quoted a senior church leader as saying, “The Muslim Brothers say one thing then tomorrow they do another thing. They don't maintain their promises – that’s the problem.”

Meanwhile the two campaigns have stepped up attacks on each other in recent days.

The Muslim Brotherhood is emphasizing Shafiq’s ties with the ousted regime, and linking him to violent suppression of anti-Mubarak protests early last year.

Shafiq, a former minister of civil aviation, was appointed prime minister on January 29, just days after the protests began. Mubarak resigned on February 11 and Shafiq stood down on March 3.

The Brotherhood is accusing him in particular of having helping to organize the so-called “Camel Battle” – a clash on February 2 which saw Mubarak supporters, some mounted on camels, attack protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Shafiq at a press conference Sunday hit back, saying while there were pressing issues to address, “the Brotherhood chooses to focus its efforts on smear campaigns, reflecting its lack of understanding of the people’s needs.”

“They are also offering bribes to encourage supporters and thugs to attack my campaign headquarters, and have spread rumors questioning my religious piety,” the Al-Ahram daily quoted Shafiq as saying. Shafiq’s campaign headquarters was firebombed after the first round results were announced.

He also accused the Brotherhood of inappropriately using mosques for campaigning activity.

Amid the war of words, Morsi and Shafiq have refused to take part in a face-to-face debate ahead of the election, but on Tuesday evening both will answer the same set of questions in separate, live television programs, to be broadcast simultaneously on two different channels.

The programs will then immediately be aired again, with the channels switching, so prospective voters will have the chance to watch both candidates respond to the questions.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow