THE formation of the first Egyptian government under a freely
elected President has failed to ease the fears of the country's
Christians that their future in the country might not be assured
under Islamist rule.
Complaints that the new cabinet contains only one Christian came
against the background of Coptic-Muslim clashes in a town south of
Cairo, and an attack by Islamist militants on a border post, in
which 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed.
After the new cabinet had been sworn in by President Mohamed
Morsi, the Prime Minister, Hisham Qandil, said that it was time for
Egyptians "to stop asking who is a Copt, a Muslim, or a Salafi. I
don't see that. All I see is that we are all Egyptians, and this
should be the main principle." This might be the ideal, but such
reasoning ignores the fact that the overwhelming desire thus far in
democracies in the Middle East has been for representation, first
and foremost, on a sectarian basis. This has been the case most
obviously in Lebanon and Iraq, and the pattern is now continuing in
Salafists complained that their strong showing in the
parliamentary elections was not reflected in the apportioning of
cabinet posts - they received none. Muslim Brotherhood supporters
feel aggrieved that only two of their members have become
ministers, despite their overwhelming political success. And the
Copts are unhappy at the appearance of only one Christian in the
"It is not right that Copts get treated in this way," the acting
head of the Coptic Church, Bishop Bakhomious, told a Cairo
newspaper. "We had expected an increase in the representation of
Copts. The way the cabinet has been formed is not fair on us."
The new government is composed mostly of technocrats, who have
the task of trying to lift the country out of its economic
quagmire. The military is holding on to the defence portfolio.
Egyptian Christians' unhappiness at the cabinet composition is an
indicator of their lack of confidence in the new democratic system.
Even though President Morsi has sought to assure them of their
future in the new Egypt (News, 20 July), they feel that only their
own strong representation in government will safeguard their
"The general climate is turning against Christians," a senior
figure in the Coptic Church, Bishop Morcos, said in an interview
with the French news agency AFP. "Assaults on Christians have
increased. It's not just a matter of having one min-istry."
Bishop Morcos was referring to the latest clashes between Copts
and Muslims, in the small town of Dahshur last week. They began
after an argument between two men became violent. In the subsequent
uproar, a Muslim man was allegedly burned to death by a Copt. This
led on subsequent days to attacks on a church and Christian
prop-erties. Hundreds of Copts fled for safety.
The arrival of troops eventually established order, but not
before Copts had held protests outside the presidential palace in
Cairo, criticising the Islamist-led government. President Morsi
ordered the authorities to take steps to prevent a repeat of the
incident, adding that they should "never allow anyone to attack
public or private property or terrorise any Egyptian citizen".
Last Sunday's attack by Islamist militants on a military post on
Egypt's border with Israel, in which 16 Egyptians soldiers were
killed, has added to the unease of Christians; for, although the
assault sought to target Israelis rather than Copts, the
reappearance of such ruthless groups is a further destabilising
factor in the country.
During the revolution, dozens of convicted Islamist militants
were freed from prison. Salafi and Jihadist groups appear to be
interpreting the success of Islamists at the ballot box, and in the
presidential election, as a licence for them to pursue their own
Keeping such groups in check will be at least as difficult for
President Morsi and his advisers as trying to ease the military off
the political stage. At the same time, he will be hard pressed to
prevent the country's fledgling democracy from turning into a
slanging match between sectarian factions.