The registration of Copts on electoral lists, assigning a quota for Copts in the Parliament, and the formation of a committee for monitoring cases of discrimination were among the issues discussed in a workshop organised by the Forum of National Contribution entitled “Nominating Copts in legislative elections”. The forum is affiliated to the Coptic Orthodox Bishopric of Youth, and was established in 1990 to encourage young people to have a role in political life. Contributors to the workshop came from across the political spectrum. The question of positive discrimination via specifying a quota for Copts in legislative bodies triggered a heated debate.
Abdel-Moniem Saïd of al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, chaired the session and argued that society could not be viewed as democratic without the representation of different social groups. Copts, as a religious group, were no longer elected to the Parliament, with the government countering by appointing a certain number of Copts to the ++Shura++ (Consultative) Council, the upper house of the Egyptian Parliament. The move is of necessarily doubtful legitimacy. Dr Saïd attributed the suffering of Copts to the discriminative policies adopted by the Egyptian State, the ascendance of political Islam and the rise of public fanaticism. As for patterns of resistance, he said: “In light of the existing low voter turnout, if the million Coptic voters decide to cast their ballots the Copts’ status in Parliament will most likely improve.”
Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, a Coptic politician and deputy to the head of the Wafd political party, attributed the Copts’ weak representation in legislative bodies to the attitude of the Copts themselves. “Copts are part of the problem, he said, since they refrain from playing a role in electoral constituencies in cities and villages,” he said. “This is a situation that has made it difficult for political parties to nominate Copts, and made it even more difficult for a candidate in a Coptic-majority constituency to be sure of winning.” Contributing to the phenomenon was the culture of division based upon religion, introduced to Egypt from outside [the Arabian Peninsula], he added.
In strong agreement Samir Fayyad, deputy chief of the left-wing Tagammu Party, stressed the passivity of Copts, remarking that despite the fact that Copts constituted 30 per cent of doctors, the Doctors’ Syndicate was dominated by the MB. To combat the deep-rooted culture of discrimination, however, Dr Fayyad suggested a coalition to guarantee the presence of Copts on electoral lists.
Better than the Muslim Brotherhood?
“The Egyptian regime excludes all groups, Coptic and Muslim alike,” said Osama al-Ghazali Harb, Shura Council member and deputy head of the Democratic Front party. “Backed by the help of security apparatuses, a tiny group dominates the political scene. Such a situation undermines the values of tolerance and secularism,” he said. Dr Harb criticised the common practice of Copts being more active on the economic rather than on the political front, saying this promoted sectarianism and supported fanatic claims that Copts controlled 30 per cent of the nation’s wealth. By the same token, he criticised the Copts’ inclination to support the ruling National Democratic Party under the pretext that it was better than the Muslim Brotherhood, since it turned Copts into supporters of the authoritarian regime. However, he expressed optimism for the future of Egypt in light of the remarkable state of positive actions—including sit-ins and demonstrations—taken by members of the public seeking to claim their rights.
The strong prevalent overlap between religion and politics was blamed on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. “Copts resort to a disastrous attitude of isolation and constitute groups inside colleges which are known as ‘CH’, and which do not deal with Muslims,” said Muhammad Abul-Ghar, professor of medicine. “The Church should encourage Copts to play an active role in society,” Dr Abul-Ghar added.
The writer Nabil Omar called for a genuine democratic society in which women, Copts and the middle class would play an active role in society and politics. However Emad Gad of al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies said democracy was not restricted to people casting their ballots. He asked whether the ruling regime really wanted genuine reform, and argued that the NDP had an interest in isolating Copts in their churches and preventing them from taking on a political and societal role. He said categorisation in schools and social clubs on the basis of religion was the first step to the absence of Coptic representation in the Parliament.
The retreat of Christians in the Arab World as a result of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the region and the increasing influence of Hamas and Hizbullah was highlighted by Saad Hagras, while Makram Mohammed Ahmed, the chairman of the Syndicate of Journalists criticised some Copts for “magnifying their problems and resorting to foreign powers to help them gain their rights.”
Even so, Ahmed argued that discrimination has really deep cultural roots. “There is a long heritage of Coptic isolation in Egyptian society which led to a separation between Muslims and Copts….great effort is needed to bridge the gap between the two groups and bring Copts back to their society’.
Dr Fayyad said long-term measures should cover reforming cultural, educational and legal structures, which are now based on discrimination.
Can the situation improve? MP Mustafa al-Feqi argued that the fairer and freer elections were, the more Copts would be represented in legislative bodies. He stressed the significance of opening a free dialogue on the issue of discrimination against Copts.