CHRISTIANS in Egypt face a dilemma when they turn out this weekend for the second round of the presidential elections. One choice would be for Ahmed Shafiq — a secular candidate, but one who is strongly associated with the authoritarian rule of the former President, Hosni Mubarak. The other choice is for a candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi, who is committed to reinforcing the Islamic character of Egypt.
Both Mr Shafiq and Mr Morsi have been sending out reassuring messages to the country’s Copts. But most Christians remain suspicious. At the same time, they have found themselves pawns in the campaign rhetoric.
Islamists as a whole believe that it was strong support from the Copts that allowed Mr Shafiq to do so well in the first round of voting. Similar accusations have come from the young revolutionary groups who regard Mr Shafiq as an unacceptable relic from the old regime.
Mr Shafiq, for his part, has warned Christians that if they vote for Mr Morsi in the second round, they will effectively be supporting a trend that will lead to the imposition of restrictions on Christian worship and the rights of women.
As a result of this kind of rhetoric, the political atmosphere in Egypt is more than tinged with sectarian tension. Nabil Abdel Fattah, of the Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies in Cairo, said: “This is hardly surprising when you have a sizeable section of the population fearful of an Islamic victory, while Islamists accuse Copts of supporting a candidate from the old regime in order to turn back the clock.”
In Mr Fattah’s view, “the majority of Christians will vote for Ahmed Shafiq because the [other] option is a candidate with a religious agenda that runs counter to their interests.”
Indications from the votes of Egyptians living abroad are that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate will be successful in the second round of voting. In the opinion of the Egyptian Christian journalist George Sabri, “this ultimately will be the best result for the Copts; for if Mr Shafiq won, then the Islamists and the revolutionaries would turn their wrath on Christians.
“My bet is that many Copts will decide that the choice between the two candidates is just too awful and decide not to vote at all.”
The dilemma faced by Copts in Egypt comes against a background of political and legal wrangling that has left the country still without a body to draw up a constitution that defines the position of the new president. At the same time, a court ruling could declare that the parliamentary elections, which swept the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists to power, were invalid.
This would require the parliament to be dissolved, and, quite possibly, a delay in holding the final round of presidential elections. Such a move could prompt Egyptians to take to the streets in their millions once more. Violence between the demonstrators and the army would be inevitable.