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Christian alarm at Islamist gains in Egypt

by Gerald Butt, Middle East Correspondent

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Building up: a church in Cairo last Friday. The hoarding is advertising a medical centre AP

Building up: a church in Cairo last Friday. The hoarding is advertising a medical centre AP

ARAB commentators have been as surprised as international ones at the overall success of Islamic groups in the first round of parliamentary elections in Egypt.

The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, as widely predicted, won about 37 per cent of the vote (News, 2 December). But, to the astonishment of most, al-Nour, the party of the ultra-conservative Salafists, was not far behind with about 25 per cent.

Islamists are expected to fare at least as well in the next two rounds of voting — which will be in mainly rural areas — which would give them a clear majority in the new parliament.

While the Muslim Brotherhood continues to emphasise its belief in inclusivity, with the possibility of entering into a coalition with a secular party and leaving the outward appearances of life in Egypt largely untouched, Salafists have a clear agenda for change. This in­cludes the complete marginalisa­tion of Copts, and the exclusion of women from public life.

So the election results thus far, with two more rounds to come, have not brought comfort or joy to Egypt’s small Christian community. Wagih Yacoub, a Coptic activist, told International Christian Concern that “Salafists are one of the largest threats to Christians in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is also very dangerous, but the difference is the Salafists don’t negotiate.”

A Coptic priest in Cairo, Fr Gameel, told the al-Ahram news­paper that the election results thus far showed that Egypt had “replaced the Mubarak dictatorship with a new dictatorship, but this time it is religious”.

Despite their overall success, it is by no means certain that the Brother­hood and the Salafists will want to build an all-Islamic alliance in parliament or in the wider political arena. During the elections so far, the two groups have displayed ambivalent attitudes to one another. They have competed fiercely in trying to win seats for their respective parties. In cases where seats were contested by individuals, however, they have worked together to try to block secular and liberal candidates.

Egyptian Christians are not alone in feeling uneasy about the election results. Some of the young people at the forefront of the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak say that they suddenly feel unrepresented in the political process.

“The elections were supposed to be about a new force that had formed in recent months, such as the Egypt Bloc, which is a coalition of liberal and leftist parties,” the columnist Ali Ibrahim wrote in the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat. “But the Salafist party is also new and only months old, yet it achieved higher results; so what happened?”

What happened was that the Muslim Brotherhood was not alone in having set up social-support struc­­tures around the country during the years of dictatorship. While the lead­ers of Salafi and jihadi groups were imprisoned, activists continued to work quietly in the background, build­ing up a strong support base.

In the chaotic months after the revolution, young revolutionaries and some secular groups expended much of their energy on demanding instant changes — the trial of Mubarak, the removal of corrupt officials, the return of the army to bar­racks, and so on. They failed to pay sufficient attention to prepara­tions for the elections, leaving the field open to the well-organised Islamists.

The lesson that Western govern­ments and their allies in the Middle East need to learn is that the free and fair democracy that they advocate in the Middle East will not necessarily produce the results with which they are most comfortable. Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco have already proved this.

As the commentator Elias Har­foush wrote in the newspaper al-Hayat: “One of the most important achieve­ments of the Arab Spring is that it restored the right to free choice to the regular citizens. This right is not violated by the fact that the Islamic movements have accessed power. Indeed, these are the societies and this is their choice.”

Such cool logic will do nothing, however, to reassure Arab Christians who are worried about their future security in the region.

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