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Why are Egyptian Christians joining Islamist electoral lists?

A number of Christians took many by surprise when their names appeared on Al-Nour’s electoral lists, stirring a debate about their motives

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

The Egyptian Electoral Law, issued in 2014, stressed the principle of fair representation by focusing on groups seen as marginalized by previous regimes, particularly Christians and women. According to the law, each electoral list should include at least three Christians, three women, two farmers and/or workers, two youths, one disabled person and one expatriate.

While this quota system was satisfactory to various factions, it was problematic for ultra-conservative Islamist parties, known for their hostile statements against Christians. The Salafi Al-Nour Party had no choice but to approach Christians to join its lists. A considerable number of Christians took both Christians and Muslim liberals by surprise when their names appeared on Al-Nour’s electoral lists, stirring a debate about their motives and the party’s intentions.

Susan Samir, a Christian candidate on Al-Nour’s electoral list in Greater Cairo, said situation had changed since the Jan. 25 revolution offered a chance to open a new page between traditionally conflicting factions. “The party also supported President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after the June 30 protests, and was part of the road map that followed the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood,” she said. “If the president agreed to cooperate with them, how can we reject?”

Samir said the constitution stressed the principles of equality and inclusion. “This means no faction should be excluded from the political scene, and we should all unite for Egypt’s stability.” Samir said Al-Nour members do not shake hands with women and ask that woman who meet with them wear a headscarf, which she respects. “There are conservative Christians, exactly like there are conservative Muslims.”

When asked about the campaign that aims to disband all religious parties, Samir said if a court labeled Al-Nour a religious party, she would file a lawsuit against it. “This would mean they deceived me, but if it’s a political party with a religious reference, I have no problem.”

Nader al-Serafi - head of the Copts 38 Coalition for divorce rights, and a Christian on Al-Nour’s electoral lists for West Delta - said edicts issued by prominent Salafi figures in the party against Christians, such as the prohibition of greeting Christians on their religious holidays, are irrelevant.

“This is a religious debate that has nothing to do with politics. It’s up to people to greet us on religious holidays or not, as it’s up to them to refuse shaking hands with women,” he said. “Elections are about politics, and religious issues shouldn’t interfere.” Serafi said there was no discrimination between Christians and Muslims inside the party, which is gradually adopting a more flexible standpoint on a number of issues.

Opportunism

Political science professor Tarek Fahmy said Al-Nour uses two contradictory discourses, one for the public and another for its members. “Publicly, Al-Nour stresses its respect for rights and freedoms, and reassures Egyptians that it has no intention to work toward establishing a religious state, while reassuring party members that its policies have never changed, and that accepting Christians was only out of necessity to gain access to parliament,” he said.

Coptic activist and writer Kamal Zakher said Al-Nour was only using Christians to qualify for the electoral race. “The party neither considers Christians an integral part of the national project, nor believes in the importance of their presence in the next parliament. They only know that it’s impossible for them to run in the elections without Christians, so they simply had to.” He said party chairman Younis Makhioun admitted recently that the law forced it to include Christians.

Legal expert and Islamist writer Ahmed Kamal Abul Magd also referred to Makhioun’s statement, which he described as an indication of his and the party’s lack of political vision. “By calling the inclusion of Christians a matter of necessity instead of stressing the values of citizenship and national unity, the party is confirming concerns about its discriminatory policies, and is expected to lose a lot as a result,” he said.

Hussein Hassan, legal coordinator of the No to Religious Parties campaign, said the relationship between Al-Nour and Christians is purely pragmatic. “While Al-Nour is using Christians to complete its lists and win seats in parliament, some Christians are hoping Al-Nour will help pass legislation that amends divorce laws for Copts against the will of the church.”

Hassan said most Christians who support Al-Nour belong to the Copts 38 Coalition that calls for the reinstatement of the 1938 law, which offered more relaxed circumstances under which Copts could divorce. This alliance with the Copts, he said, was a way to turn against the church.

That is why Coptic activist Naguib Gobrail said Copts who joined Al-Nour lists were trying to create a rift between the church and Christians, and to “twist the church’s arm” to change its laws. “These can’t be considered Christians. How could they ally with a party that considers Christians infidels?”

Magdi Saber, spokesperson for the Coptic movement the Union of Maspero Youths, agreed: “The majority of Egyptian Christians don’t consider them Christians. They, in fact, are traitors.”