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As Egypt's presidential election presents extraordinary challenges, GlobalPost offers this continuing series to shed light on how the country will move forward under its first-ever civilian head of state and how the soon-to-be-drafted constitution will protect civil rights in a new Egypt. 

Christians in Egypt: A storm within the storm

The country's 'orphaned' Coptic minority is still hurting seven months after 27 died at the hands of the military.

"There is an un-addressed question when it comes to the issue of Sharia [Islamic law] as to whether Copts can have a say in its interpretation, which would entail Christians making judgments and arguments about Islam and Islamic texts. For some, this is not permissible,” says Hanna. 

“But if the constitutional and legal foundations of the state are sharia-based, excluding Copts from such discussions obviously implies an inequality of citizenship,” he adds.

The rights of minorities, particularly religious minorities,  aren’t exactly rallying cries for Islamist candidates, as Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, points out. 

“Why would a group like the Muslim Brotherhood go out of their way to appeal to Christians? They don’t want to alienate Salafis and right-wing voters who are presumably the majority of Egyptians, and that’s the most important constituency for the Muslim Brotherhood campaign right now,” says Hamid. “In Egypt, rights of Christians just aren’t a winning campaign issue.”

Youssef Sidhoum, editor of the Coptic newspaper al-Watani, knows that all too well. He sits at the head of a long oak table in his office in downtown Cairo — behind him hangs a photograph of his late father, who founded the paper. He says the situation for Egypt's Copts has worsened following the country's revolution. He bemoans a revival of political Islam and a failure of the ruling regime to enforce the rule of law or to offer Copts protection. 

Thought Copts comprise a considerable voting bloc, political analysts agree that Copts organizing under a “Copt political umbrella” would be political suicide. Integration is the key, says Sidhoum. 

He pointed to to the embryonic efforts of some Christians to politically mobilize, such as Egyptian business tycoon Naguib Sawiris with his “Free Egyptians” Party. The party joined a coalition that performed poorly in last fall’s parliamentary elections and its impact dissolved into “quibbling.” 

They were not “playing the game smartly,” he added. “It’s all about egos and Egypt needs time to mature.”

As a Coptic Christian living Egypt, deep down in my heart there lies a wound – an open scab,” Sidhoum said. “It has festered over more than three decades as the situation only gets worse.”

One of the long standing grievances for Copts are the state-imposed restrictions on the right to build and maintain churches, regulations that Muslims don’t face when building mosques. National security police have the right to reject any application or suspend approvals for years without being held to account, says Sidhoum. A new church also requires a presidential decree, while repairs need a governor's approval. What’s more, Sidhoum says Copts are woefully underrepresented in the military, judiciary, diplomatic corps, academia and almost all electoral bodies.

Despite these many lingering resentments, Coptic Christian voters seems to sense there is a moment at hand to consolidate their power and do everything possible to block an Islamist presidency.

“I always tell the people at my church: vote for any non-Islamists even if you think he is felool,” or “a remnant” of the old regime, says Priest Hegemon Methias Naser of Mar Mor’os church in East Cairo. “We are unofficially trying to bring them down.” 

It’s a time, Sidhoum says, for Copts to think strategically and also to play it safe, a spirit he has brought to his role as a newspaper publisher. 

“Until now, it’s not in our interest to criticize the military or the church. It’s an editorial weak point, yes, but these are our red lines. We don’t praise them either. We just don’t believe it serves our interests,” explains Sidhoum.

In Asyut, a governorate in Upper Egypt with one of the largest Christian populations in Egypt which saw sweeping Islamist gains in parliamentary elections last fall, priests refused to talk about the current political situation. But members of the congregation were clear. 

“We’re afraid for our existence,” said Miriam, 33, who declined to give her last name. She has five children and she said her husband, like many, is unemployed and so like many Copts they are pondering emigration. 

“We’ll probably leave. In the meantime, the priests are encouraging us to vote for anyone but Islamists,”  she says.

Hanna Georges Grace is one of the Coptic parliamentarians appointed by the ruling military. Out of 508 members of parliament, there are just 14 Copts total. Nine were elected and five were appointed by SCAF. Grace says the rights of Copts have been widely ignored by the Islamist-dominated parliament. 

“Anyone who is a non-Islamist has been greeted like a guest inside the parliament,” Grace says.

Still, Mossad, the Coptic activist and organizer still recovering from injuries she suffered at Maspero, says Copts have to step out of the shadows of their churches and get involved in politics. 

“If I lose money, I can pray all day to get it back. But it won’t come back,” she says. “We have to do something. We can’t just sit here on our couch and pray. We can’t just say ‘Christians and Muslims’ are one hand when we are broken.”

She freshened up her curls with a few hot rollers and set out to for yet another meeting, one she admits “probably won’t accomplish anything.” Her son, a young photographer who she desperately wants to leave Egypt and make a life for himself elsewhere, looks on. 

“She’s still yelling,” says her son, handling a camera lens that was shattered during Maspero. “I’m just not sure how many people are listening.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/egypt/120523/christians-egypt-presidential-election