March 26, 2012
TSG IntelBrief: “Egypt’s Copts: The Age of Uncertainty?”
As of mid-March 2012, the composition of the just-announced Egyptian Constituent Assembly will likely further increase concerns by the country's 12 million Copts, who, although accounting for nearly 10% of the total population, will likely gain only 3 seats of the 100 member assembly. In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm - the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) - and the Salafist-influenced Nour Party appear to have garnered more than 70 seats in an assembly where 50 members were selected from the current bi-cameral Parliament (the People's Assembly and the Shura Council) and 50 members from outside the government (mostly from religious, educational, and civic organizations).
This is a significant step toward political irrelevance for the already beleaguered Copt community as it is this Constituent Assembly that will draft the new constitution by which future governments and laws must abide. Such underrepresentation of the Coptic community in the groundbreaking process of drafting of the new Egyptian constitution bodes poorly both for the largest Christian congregation in the Middle East as well as for those hoping for relative moderation from the Muslim Brotherhood as it transitions from its long-standing status of resistance/opposition party to assuming the consequential burden of governance. The large exodus of Copts from Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood's success at the polls can only compound the profound political problems facing the Coptic community.
The timing of this political decline could hardly be worse, coming so soon after the March 17th death of the long-serving and high-profile leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Shenouda III. The Copts will essentially be leaderless as they complete the months-long process of selecting their new Pope, and any new leader cannot hope to lead with the the authority and visibility of his predecessor. Indeed, the death of Pope Shenouda III prompted world-wide, albeit temporary, focus on the Copts, with world leaders offering condolences. There had been at least hints of conciliation in the aftermath of his death, with FJP chairman Mohammad Mursi, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi (the current military ruler), and even Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Goma'a all publicly praising Shenouda and his call for unity and peace among his countrymen. (The praise for the message of unity might strike some as ironic coming from the head of the FJP, which until last year was seen by some as the biggest threat to national stability and unity in Egypt.)
The former Pope, who often proclaimed that his country was a nation that lived within the people and not a nation the people lived in, was known as a nationalist with close and somewhat controversial ties to the former regime of Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, it might be Shenouda's insistence that Copts not form political religious parties - a stance that no doubt endeared him to Mubarak - that leaves the community fundamentally ill-prepared to effectively engage in political machinations such as the aforementioned selection of the Constituent Assembly.
As a result, the Copts are now facing a situation where there political power falls well short of what might be expected given their numbers. Furthermore, the Copts themselves are not a solid bloc, with groups such as the Maspero Movement and Copts Unrestricted pushing for a more prominent and secular political stance than that under Shenouda. Added to this are the large numbers of "migr's, both in the United States and in Europe, who might push harder for greater representation given they would not face the full brunt of any backlash.
The recent protests, such as the February demonstration in front of the People's Assembly, and sporadic violence, including the clashes that left at least 25 Copts dead in October 2011, have led an unknown number of Copts to flee Egypt, a scene reminiscent of post-war Iraq and the mass exodus of Christians from that country. In early March, Italian airline authorities refused to allow 37 Copts to transit Italy en route from Cairo to Russia, saying they feared the group would file for political asylum once on EU soil. This hesitancy on the part of EU countries will likely increase as tensions rise in Egypt before the expected June 2012 transition from military to civilian rule.
There are a few avenues of hope for the Copts in terms of at least maintaining their current status. One scenario would involve a reluctance by the soon-to-be ruling Muslim Brotherhood to pick unnecessary battles as it attempts to salvage the economy and reorient the country's foreign affairs. The relative tolerance by the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP towards Coptic rights would at least avoid additional pressure from an already highly suspicious U.S. Congress, which just granted $1.2 billion in aid to the country (aid, it should be noted, that will be specifically delivered through the current military regime). At the same time, the Nour Party will likely push for greater power, even though it already enjoys far greater political influence than the Copts while representing a similar percentage of the overall population. The FJP will likely have to accommodate the interests of the Nour Party in some measure if it hopes to maintain power and order, but could do so without further antagonizing or repressing the Copts. The influence of the military also suggests some hope for the Copts, as the Army views itself as a symbol of stability and national unity and will, to a degree, seek to establish as much amid the political sea change taking place. Further, the Army would be unlikely to support overt legal repression against such a large segment of the population, certainly not one that has the support of U.S. congressional committees, which provide robust - and irreplaceable - funding for the Egyptian military.
Still, the relative exclusion of the Copts from the drafting of the constitution is a significant and problematic development that, given its potential for future instability, bears watching by government and corporate policy makers.
- There is a strong probability of public demonstrations by Copts who are both angered and disillusioned over the make-up of the Constituent Assembly. At the same time, the lack of a unifying figurehead for the Copts will lead to additional fracturing and stress among the congregation at large.
- The FJP/Muslim Brotherhood may seek to avoid unnecessary battles by assuming a moderate stance vis a vis the Copts, as might the still-powerful military. In addition, back channel pressure from U.S. policymakers, using the leverage of financial assistance, could substantially help mitigate any negative pressure on the Copts. The situation for Copts in Egypt has wider implications for Christians throughout the Middle East, as similar disenfranchisement has the potential to undermine stability and security elsewhere.
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