CAIRO - Calm and composed, 26-year-old Shaheer Ishak was a university student only a few short years ago. Now, he is campaigning for a seat in the first parliament of Egypt’s post-Husni Mubarak era. Ishak is one of a handful of youth activists, who were instrumental in the protest movement that ousted the former dictator in February who decided to throw his hat in the race.
Unlike most candidates on the ballot, however, Ishak is a Coptic Christian. But as sectarian tensions have erupted in the weeks leading up to November 28 parliamentary elections, the young political economist is ignoring religion, both as part of his personal identify and as a campaign issue. He shares the liberal philosophy of the Egypt Freedom Party, which was founded last May by a group of activists from the revolution and to which he belongs.
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“I don’t see myself as a Christian candidate,” he begins, able to multi-task at their downtown Cairo headquarters after a leadership meeting. He told The Media Line that for him, “this election is about creating national consensus and not about breaking the country into religious lines.”
Accounting for about 10% of Egypt’s 80 million people, Copts have traditionally suffered discrimination and are underrepresented in Egyptian politics and society. Their high hopes for the revolution and democracy have been dashed by the rise of Islamic extremism and doubts about the interim military government’s attitude toward them.
Those concerns were brought home October 9 when a peaceful demonstration in Cairo’s Maspero Square was attacked by security personnel, leaving at least 27 people dead and more 300 injured. Vigilante attacks on Copts and their churches that Copts remember from the Mubarak have continued under the generals.
Conscious of Coptic fears, Ishak hopes that the party’s values will take precedent over his religion. He admits that running in the upper middle-class Heliopolis district in the capital, where religion has so far not emerged as an issue, helps push the liberal agenda. He says that most residents share his thinking and this has helped him.
“Granted there are issues, but in my district at least, most people are more open to liberal ideas and it is likely I will be running against another liberal, so I don’t think religion will be a major factor,” he adds.
The younger generation of Copts would like to see more of Christian candidates out there, pressing for votes and explaining their goals for the future of the country. But Coptic candidates face more obstacles to running than their Muslim peers – opposition from Islamists, fears by the church establishment of delving too deeply into politics and growing pessimism among Copts themselves.
A recent poll by the Egyptian Union for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization, showed that around two thirds of 40,000 Christians surveyed said they would vote in the upcoming elections. The pollsters said that many Copts expressed the view that the "prevailing climate in Egypt will not help Copts" make gains at the ballot box.
Many parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, are including Copts on their election lists, but Coptic activists say the number is so small that the new parliament may not have any Christian members. In the 1940s, Copts accounted for a tenth of the country’s lawmakers but in the final years of the Mubarak regime, their numbers fell to less than 1%, many of them presidential appointees.
The November 28 vote is the first of a series to elect two houses of parliament and a president between now and 2013. It will be first time ever that Egyptians can freely choose candidates in fair elections.
Noha, a 22-year-old university student, told The Media Line that in her hometown of Alexandria, antagonism toward the Christian minority has prevented candidates from being able to get out their message to the public.
“It’s not a positive situation because there is a very strong Salafist and [Muslim] Brotherhood contingent that is talking about conservative Islam and Islamic values and this sort of thing, which alienates the Christians,” she says.
Salafists are Muslims seeking to return their religion to what they regard as its earliest and purest form. That has often morphed into extremism and hostility towards Copts.
Coptic Pope Shenouda has also limited the ability of Coptic candidates to reach out to their co-religionists by barring any political discussion inside churches across the country. Noha says this will hurt candidates “being able to talk about the elections and what they stand for. [Elections] shouldn’t be about religion, but when you have thousands of mosques across the country supporting openly certain candidates, the least the church could do is give an equal chance.”
For Ishak, religion should not be a major part of the voting process. He believes the revolution and its ideas should supersede any religious considerations. “I am for any group or candidate that supports the democratic process, whether Islamic or Christian or secular because this is what the revolution was about,” he adds.
There is a growing worry that the country could face an Islamist backlash in the upcoming vote, with a number of leading conservative Islamic figures speaking out on the importance of turning toward conservative values. Leading the charge is Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, a Muslim cleric who says he will run for president. He has called for women to don “Islamic dress” and has proposed a tax on Christians.
Amr Derrag, the head of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Giza – a party founded by the Muslim Brotherhood – attempts to dispel those concerns, telling The Media Line that “Christians were part of the revolution and they deserve equal status under the law and the future Egyptian democratic process … We do not differentiate between Christians and Muslims, we are all Egyptians,” he asserts.
But Noha and others are not convinced. She says she believes that the conservative Islamists, who have gained much popularity and strength since converging on Tahrir Square in Cairo at the end of July in an enormous show of strength. Over one million Islamists chanted for an Islamic state in Egypt, demanding that Islam be the top priority for the future of the Egyptian state.
“It worries and scares me that this is happening because we all fought for the future of this country in the revolution and now groups who did not participate are taking all the power and convincing people they have the best way. It is sad,” says Noha.
But for Ishak, the election should be more than faith and ideology. “I firmly believe in the revolution, which is why I joined this party because of its democratic principles. If we can have a large number of voters, it will turn out all right and religion shouldn’t play a major role in the election of people.”
He does, however, understand the worries and fears, but is optimistic
that the change people wanted can be achieved, through voting. “It is
our greatest power as a democracy.”
His father, longtime activist and political leader George Ishak, says he
is proud of his son and believes that this is exactly what the Coptic
community needs - someone who is not running as a Coptic candidate, but a
candidate for all Egyptians’ who share his political views.
“People are fearful, and with the violence of recent times, I understand
them, but when we try to move forward, it is about Egypt and should not
be about Muslim or Christian or this or that,” he says.