Egyptian President-elect Mohammed Morsi’s victory shocked and scared many of Egypt’s Christian Coptic citizens, and the Coptic community is anxiously awaiting his next move. The majority among them had endorsed his opponent, Ahmed Shafiq, who was effectively the candidate of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Their support for Shafiq was ultimately a futile attempt to prevent a Muslim Brotherhood nominee from reaching the presidential palace for the first time in history.
Despite the fact that Copts raised crosses and participated in Morsi’s victory celebrations, there were some clear indications that the community at large felt concerned. Their concern reached a point that drove Morsi himself to meet with Coptic church representatives in the last few days. In the meetings, he tried to reassure them that he considered Muslims and Copts to be equal citizens in rights and responsibilities.
Morsi’s message received a positive reception from Coptic Church officials. The Church's youth bishop, Bishop Moussa, stated: “We were pleased to have met the president, whose heart is filled with love, kindness and modesty. His overwhelmingly kind thoughts for all Egyptians, including the Copts, eased our minds.”
The president-elect met with the Church delegation which included the Church’s acting Pope, Archbishop Pachomius, Bishop Mousa and Bishop Bishawi — all prominent candidates to become the next Pope — and other bishops. During this meeting, Morsi affirmed, “All Egyptians are equal partners in this nation, and no one can tell the Copts what their place in Egypt is.” He also promised to keep “a line of communication open, day and night, between [himself] and the Copts”. He added, “I feel proud that the people have asked me to watch over Egypt’s Copts.”
“From day one, we felt that the new president loved the people; we hope that his presidency will carry a message of love and peace towards all the Egyptian people. Egypt now needs reassurance and peace,” said Archbishop Pachomius. Addressing Morsi, he added, “Your presence in this post comforts all Egyptians.”
The president-elect also met with a group of church leaders yesterday representing all of the Christian denominations in Egypt. The head of the Anglican Church, Reverend Safwat el-Bayadi, thanked Morsi for the “spontaneous words that soothed the hearts’ of the Egyptian people” in his victory speech. Bayadi affirmed, “This speech and its content about the constitutionally democratic future of the state reassured all Egyptians and will help establish a new phase of dialogue between Muslims and Copts.”
Acting presidential spokesperson, Yasser Ali, said that Morsi assured Church delegations that he “would always strive to meet and communicate with them.” For his part, Father Yousef Hanouch, a Syriac Catholic Bishop, said, “We will all pray that the new president be successful, and ask him to place the utmost importance on the issue of national unity.”
Ali pointed out that “the president affirmed that national unity is one of his main goals, and a priority on his agenda... When he used the slogan of ‘our power is in our unity’ during the electoral campaign, he knew very well the importance of those words. We knew that it was inevitable that the Egyptian people would regain their unifying fabric, despite all of the past efforts to divide Egyptians — Muslims and Copts alike.”
“The president declared that those incidents would never be repeated, and that we would always work as one. Our strength is in our unity,” he said.
However, in order for the church leadership’s positive reactions to permeate through the masses, the president-elect must go beyond just words and promises. Morsi seems to understand this, and has declared his intention to appoint a Coptic vice president. Even still, posts are not as important as policies that can solidify the sense of national belonging.
Magdi Saber, a member of the Coalition of the Coptic Maspero Youth, which was established after the revolution, pointed out that “Copts fear Morsi’s party’s policies, not Morsi himself.” He added, “Some Copts who became members of revolutionary coalitions voted for Morsi, hoping to recover the rights of their martyrs who fell alongside Muslims during the revolution. Or, they voted for Morsi because of the army’s assault on [Coptic] demonstrators in front of the television and radio station headquarters last October.”
Saber told Al-Hayat: “It does not really matter to us if a Copt becomes vice president. We want the new president to rely on competency and not on religious affiliations when making governmental appointments. We want actions, not just words. We expect him to find solutions to longstanding issues, such as adopting a unified law that governs places of worship. We also expect him to give assurances against discrimination, whether in staffing open positions or in deciding educational and cultural curricula.”
The Free Copts Movement asked the president-elect to “refrain from recruiting individuals whose proclaimed devotion to Coptic interests is erroneous” an allusion to Coptic figures that have close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a statement, the movement added: “We will give the president the same 100 day period that he touted during his campaign to fulfill his promises and restore the rights of the people; if he succeeds, we will stand by him and support him, but if he fails and deliberately wastes time, then we will oppose him with all the might and means that are afforded to us by law and the constitution. We ask that the Coptic issue be immediately studied and that the problems that have remained hanging for decades be solved. We also ask that the laws that made life impossible for Copts in their own country be repealed.”
Naguib Gabriel, a Coptic human rights activist, believes that the Copts’ cooperation with the president-elect and his cabinet “depends on them seeing that equal rights are given to all.” He further added that “the Copts’ most pressing demand is for a quick adoption of a unified law governing places of worship, the adoption of a law against religious discrimination in the public sector, as well as the elimination of all forms of discrimination and the achievement of equal rights for all.”
Gabriel also asked for “adequate political representation for Copts that is befitting of their numbers, the appointment of a Coptic vice president, as was promised, in addition to proper representation of Copts in the new government.” Other requests included: “Quick and just investigations into all the incidents that targeted and oppressed the Copts and a clear mention in the constitution that the Copts will be left alone to govern their religious affairs, customs and traditions.” They also called for “the respect of human rights, a commitment to international treaties and the respect and guarantee of the right to worship freely.”