Tuesday, August 25, 2009

EGYPT: Christians Split Over Presidential Scion

Written by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani
Inter Press Service
25 August 2009CAIRO, Aug 24 (IPS) -
Leaders of Egypt's Coptic Christian Church have voiced support for Gamal Mubarak, son of President Hosni Mubarak, as preferred candidate for president. Concurrently, however, some Coptic activists are calling for demonstrations against what they see as official state bias against Christians.
"Comments in support of Gamal Mubarak by church officials don't represent the opinion of all Egypt's Copts," Youssef Sidhoum, editor-in-chief of Coptic weekly Al-Watani told IPS. "Calls for strikes and demonstrations by online Coptic activists, meanwhile, represent only the views of a small minority within the Coptic community."
Christians are estimated to represent between six and 12 percent of Egypt's population of some 82 million, although precise figures are notoriously difficult to ascertain. Most Christians belong to the Egyptian Orthodox, or Coptic church, while the rest of the population is almost entirely Sunni Muslim.
Pope Shenouda III, the Egyptian Coptic Church's highest authority, appeared to give his support to presidential scion Gamal Mubarak, who many believe is being groomed to succeed his aging father.
"The majority of the public loves Gamal Mubarak and would prefer him (for president) over anyone else," Shenouda said in a Jul. 27 interview on Arabic- language satellite channel On TV. "At the appropriate time, I and the Coptic community will give our opinions of Gamal."
Ever since he was appointed head of the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP's) supremely influential Policies Committee in 2002, conjecture about Gamal's presidential ambitions has been rife. In recent months, speculation reached fever pitch, with many informed sources declaring that that "inheritance" of the presidency from father to son was "imminent".
The pope's statements, therefore, caused a considerable stir in the independent and opposition press.
In an editorial entitled 'The Pope and Inheritance', Coptic writer Gamal Asaad challenged Shenouda's assertions. "Where did he get the idea that the majority of the public prefer Gamal? Did he hold a national referendum?" Asaad asked in the Aug. 5 edition of independent daily Al-Dustour.
Sidhoum, who enjoys a close relationship with the church, likewise stressed that Shenouda's statements did not represent the opinion of all of Egypt's Copts.
"Shenouda is the leader of the Egyptian Coptic community in spiritual matters only, not political ones," he said. "His opinion of Gamal is a personal one based on personal considerations.
"There are roughly ten million Copts in Egypt of all different social, political and economic stripes," added Sidhoum. "It's ludicrous to suggest they all support Gamal Mubarak for president."
Hafez Abu Saeda, secretary-general of the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), also criticised Shenouda's statements, which he described as "uncharacteristically political."
"With all due respect to the pope, who usually avoids controversial political issues, it is not his place to take such positions," Abu Saeda told IPS. "The EOHR calls on all religious institutions, Christian and Muslim, to maintain a safe distance from politics."
Yet despite the criticisms, last week saw two more prominent Coptic leaders expressing like sentiments.
On the sidelines of President Mubarak's recent meeting with the U.S. President in Washington, Bishop Al-Anba Bishoy, secretary of the Egyptian Coptic Church's Holy Synod, also declared that the Egyptian public "likes Gamal Mubarak."
"He (Gamal Mubarak) listens to the people and visits poverty-stricken areas of the country," Bishoy was quoted as saying in independent daily Al-Masri Al-Youm on Aug. 20. "Gamal doesn't like to promote himself, but he visits the people that need to be heard and helps ease their difficulties."
Bishoy went on to express confidence in Gamal's "ability to lead Egypt in the future."
The younger Mubarak received similar endorsement from church spokesman Bishop Al-Anba Morcos, who, according to Al-Masri Al-Youm, described him as "the kind of economy man that the country needs."
An investment banker by profession, Gamal Mubarak - and his circle of business-friendly associates in the Policies Committee - has led the charge towards trade liberalisation and integration into the global economy. Despite considerable public opposition, he has consistently pushed for privatisation of state assets and opening the country to foreign investment.
According to Abu Saeda, the church's apparent support for Gamal at least partly reflects longstanding Coptic fears of an Islamist government. "Most Egyptian Copts support the ruling party largely owing to the fear of an Islamist alternative, which they worry could adversely affect their rights," said Abu Saeda.
He went on, however, to warn against making generalisations about the political orientations of all Copts.
"In the 2005 parliamentary elections, the church instructed Copts to vote for the NDP," said Abu Saeda. "Nevertheless, those elections saw Copts voting for Muslim Brotherhood candidates in some cases."
But while church officials express support for a Gamal Mubarak presidency, some Coptic activists accuse Mubarak's NDP of harbouring an official bias against Coptic Christians.
The last week of July saw the appearance of a group on social networking website Facebook urging Copts to stage a labour strike Sep. 11, Coptic New year. According to a statement on the site, dubbed "Copts for Egypt", the action is meant to express resentment over what they perceive as official bias by the state.
Notably, however, Egypt's Coptic Church - along with Egypt's Catholic and Anglican churches - officially rejected the appeal. "The church will not participate in this strike," a Coptic Church spokesman was quoted as saying in the local press. "The church does not get involved in politics."
According to Sidhoum, there is a degree of official bias against Copts at the state level, the most prominent indication of which is the lack of Coptic representation in the upper echelons of government. "But this new call to strike is directed only at Copts and not at all Egyptians," he said, "which itself shows a degree of bias."

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