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Copts fear election will sideline them

25 November 2010

by Gerald Butt Middle East Correspondent

EGYPT’S COPTS are not hopeful of the country’s next parliament — the members of which will be chosen in elections this Sunday — doing more than previous ones to end the minority community’s marginalised status.

All Egyptians are resigned to the fact that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of the President, Hosni Mubarak, will sweep to victory once more. Few Egyptians other than Mr Mubarak’s closest aides even pretend that the elections will be free and fair.

Copts argue that their marginal­isation extends to the polls them­selves. The NDP’s list of 770 candidates includes only ten Christians. “The ruling party has failed to nom­inate many well-qualified Copts,” said Bishop Boutros, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of Cairo. “The picture is not encouraging.”

In the current parliament, Copts, who account for ten per cent of the population, enjoy representation of less than two per cent.

One Coptic candidate, Albert Ishak, speaking on Arabic television, called on Egyptian parties to “en­courage young Copts to join and take part in the elections, and pro­mote the principle of equal citizen­ship instead of dividing people into Muslims and Copts.”

But Copts are realistic enough to know that changes along these lines are not likely to happen. The priority of the NDP is to guarantee a decisive victory — by fair means or foul. The party achieved its aim in the 2005 elections by the open use of thuggery to minimise the success of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main challenger to the regime.

In the run-up to the current poll, more than 1000 members of the Brotherhood have been arrested. In some constituencies, the NDP is fielding two or even three candidates to thwart the officially banned Islamic movement that contests the elections by calling its members “independent”. A senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Saad Katatni said: “What is under way is the effective rigging of the elections.”

The government has also imposed harsh restrictions on media outlets that support opposition parties — Islamic and secular.

The United States has called on Egypt, one of the West’s closest allies in the Middle East, to provide “a credible and impartial mechanism for reviewing election-related complaints, a domestic election observation effort . . . and the presence of international observers”. But the Egyptian government rejected the call, saying that the measures would constitute “an infringement upon the state sovereignty”.

Egyptian officials say privately that it is in the best interests not only of the West but also of the Copts to make sure that an Islamic group is defeated in the polls. As far as the Copts are concerned, the price to be paid for this result is the return to power of a regime that, while opposing political Islam, does not want to alienate the country’s mainstream Islamic establishment by making concessions to Christians. In other words, Egypt looks set for another five years of the status quo, with the Copts remaining marginal­ised and nervous about the long-term future.

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