As Islamists surge, Egypt's Christians hold their breath

As Islamists surge, Egypt`s Christians hold their breath Cairo: As first results of Egypt's historic parliamentary polls unfolded signalling a clear victory for the Islamists, the country's largest minority of Coptic Christians appeared apprehensive and cautious of what the future would hold for them in the revamped political set up.

The Christians comprise 10 per cent of the 80 million population of Egypt, with the roots of the community in the land pre-dating the emergence of Islam.

The Islamists were suppressed during the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak, that ended early this. But, with the fall of the dictator and the first largely free and fair elections witnessing a not-so-spectacular performance by the secular parties, the Christian community is holding its breath.

The Islamist surge, though, expected, has still left the Coptic community reeling, and opinion is divided on how to react -- whether to stay and fight for equal rights, or leave, Al Ahram daily said in a report.

"There is a lot of panic now in the Coptic community," said Tharwat Bassily, a prominent Coptic businessman. However, the panic was the result of "fear of the unknown," he added.

"I think it is too early to judge either how the Islamists will rule or how the Copts will react. We have heard a lot of theoretical arguments from them, but we still need to see what they will do practically," Bassily said.

"If they ensure that the parliament and its laws remain balanced and representative of the different factions of the Egyptian people, then that is great. However, if they give every law a religious twist then that is not okay," he was quoted as saying.

While the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), a liberal force, has won roughly 40 per cent of the vote in the first phase of the parliamentary elections, the surprise showing has come from the radical Salafist Al Nur party, that has won between 20 and 25 per cent of the vote.

Egypt's oldest politico-religious movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, has tried hard to stress itself as a moderate and pragmatic group, distinct from the Al Nur party, the ultra Conservatives who want to impose Islamic law.

The deputy head of the FJP, Essam el-Erian, has reassured Egyptians that the party would not impose Islamic values on Egypt, and would not encroach upon personal freedoms.

However, the Salafists, who look like emerging as the second major force, have made no bones about their hardline agenda. They have indicated they want to ban alcohol, segregate men and women, impose full shariah law.

The Christians are naturally worried about their future, more so, when the country witnessed communal tensions in the months after the fall of Mubarak.

Father Filopater Gameel, a Coptic priest, and a leading member of the Maspero Youth Union said he was not surprised by the election results and pointed out how the election campaign was dominated by the use of religious slogans and mosques being used to promote the Islamists.

"The biggest problem I have with the Islamists is that they are unclear and have many faces," the priest said, but insisted that fleeing the country in the wake of such developments was not the answer.

"The Copts will be the voice in Egypt that will continue to call for freedom, equality and a civil state. We will remain here and continue the fight for the beautiful and ancient Egyptian civilisation.

"I do not agree with the decision of many Copts to emigrate or flee the country because the Islamists won. This is passive. I think those who leave will be very few... Egypt will always have its Christians," he said.

The paper said that 2011 has been a difficult year for Egypt's Christians, who witnessed attacks on their Churches, and deadly clashes between Coptic protesters and the army that left at least 28 dead in what became known as the "Maspero massacre," in front of the State TV building in Maspero. The already jittery community is now wondering what the changed political landscape will hold for it.

If the first phase results are anything to go by, Islamists will be the overwhelming majority in the next parliament. There are two more phases to go before a final picture of the first post-Mubarak regime emerges.

Sameh Fawzy, a political analyst feels the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood was not because democracy-hungry Egyptians were conservative in their approach but because of the simple reason that the group has been the longest standing and most experienced political force in the country.

He agreed that some segments of the Coptic population were "terrified," but said even some segments of the Muslim population were panicking with the election outcome.

"However, the Islamists are not very good at public policies. They have popular awareness but not social awareness," he said.

However, there are also optimistic voices who believe what will matter to the people at the end of the day is how well the elected representatives govern.

"I am not worried or scared. I have no fear. The revolution has taught the Egyptian people that that they have a voice and if the Islamists do not perform well the people will revolt against them," said Mina Sabet, an activist and member of the Maspero Youth Union.