Fate of Coptic Christians in post-Mubarak Egypt worries some
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton warns Egypt’s ancient Coptic Christian minority could become increasingly endangered should the protests against Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak drive him from power.
The rioting against the Mubarak regime began on Jan. 25, in the wake of the Jan. 15 overthrow of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, with the publicly stated goals of ousting Mubarak from power and protesting Egypt’s high unemployment and rampant corruption, among other issues.
The rioting claimed the ruling party headquarters Friday and pushed the Mubarak regime to shut down Internet and cell phone communications in an effort to clamp down on opponents, and the regime sent the army into the streets Saturday to confront demonstrators as Cairo fell into near anarchy.
Bolton points out Egypt’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, which promotes the Islamist ideology employed more violently by Hamas and other terror groups, stands to gain despite being a late comer to the revolt.
“One thing I want to say about all of these young people and all of these university students is what they’re learning in the universities is very similar to what the Muslim Brotherhood preaches,” Bolton said. “So we have to worry about the radicalism among the students is very, very high.”
Consequently, conservatives are mistaken thinking anti-Mubarak forces will replace the current regime with a Western-style democracy because Mubarak represents the lesser of two evils when compared with the opposition, according to Bolton.
“The overthrow of the Mubarak regime will not by any sense of the imagination lead to the advent of Jeffersonian democracy,” Bolton said. “The greater likelihood is a radical, tightly knit organization like the Muslim Brotherhood will take advantage of the chaos and seize power.
“It is really legitimate for the Copts to be worried that instability follow Mubarak’s fall and his replacement with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The Copts, who constitute between 10 and 20 percent of Egypt’s population and whose church traces its founding back to St. Mark the Evangelist, have been increasingly targeted by Islamic extremists in recent years and have suffered intense persecution.
Copts complain Muslims are able to get away murdering them with impunity much like whites did in the South under Jim Crow, and the government discriminates against them by placing restrictions on the building and repair of churches while not imposing a similar rule on mosques.
“The Coptic problem is that of pressure on a minority, intolerance towards others and a lack of acceptance of pluralism. The more Egypt is influenced by the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, the worse it is for the Copts, ” Tarek Heggy, a leading Coptic intellectual, told the Italian press agency ADNKronos International last November while speaking about the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with the Copts.
Their plight became painfully apparent to the world after an al-Qaida affiliate bombed of a Coptic church in Alexandria, killing 20 worshippers and wounding 100 others. But this terror attack has been one of several carried out by Muslim extremists to hit the Coptic community over the past decade.
Although the Brotherhood condemned the New Year’s Eve attack, many Copts, particularly outside Egypt, worry their situation could grow worse should Mubarak fall.
“The Copts I know are scared,” said Amir Makkar, a Copt who lives near Lancaster, Pa. “It’s a dangerous proposal with what is happening in Egypt because the problem is there is a lot of uncertainty and it is impossible to tell what is going to happen amid the chaos situation because anything could happen.”
Makkar, who pays close attention to the happenings in his homeland, believes Egypt could have a chance for democracy if someone like Mohammed ElBaradei replaces Mubarak.
But Copts fear the possibility the Brotherhood could use its strong organization to fill a power vacuum left by Mubarak.
There would be a lot for the Copts to worry about should the Brotherhood come to power because they likely would establish Islamic state that would impose a harsh interpretation of Islamic law on non-Muslims, as has happened in other Muslim nations in the region, Makkar said.
Pope Shenouda III, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and other church representatives have called on Copts to refrain from participating, but evidence shows many Copts have ignored their church and have joined the revolt.
Washington Institute scholar Dina Guirgis, herself a Copt and an observer of Egyptian politics, cautions against jumping to alarmist conclusions about what could happen to the Copts should the Mubarak regime collapse.
Guirgis believes although the Muslim Brotherhood likely would play a part in a post-Mubarak government, it would not be the driving force.
“It would probably be some sort of national unity government comprised of various political forces, but all within the rules of a democratic regime, which the Muslim Brotherhood would have to subscribe to as well,” Guirgis said. “I don’t think we need to exaggerate fears of the transition from the Mubarak regime, especially because conditions were very poor for the Copts under the Mubarak regime, so it’s not as though things were rosy.”
Muslims and Christians will need to work side by side for Egypt’s future to put the three decades of the Mubarak regime behind them, according to Guirgis.
“People should not fear and not exaggerate,” she said.
The Copts have a chance to participate in a democratic government should one emerge because the anti-Mubarak movement is diverse and “largely secular,” according to Guirgis.
But Bolton counters that the experience in other majority Muslim countries where militant Islamic groups have come to power shows the Copts need to be concerned.
“Whatever you want to say about the military government for 60 years is it’s been secular,” Bolton said. “It’s a Muslim government, but it doesn’t operate under the tenet of sharia legal tenets that the Brotherhood would impose on Egypt.”