CAIRO (RNS) — Since Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took over Egypt’s presidency four years ago, he has worked to improve life for Coptic Christians, giving them near equal rights and benefits as Muslims even as their churches have been attacked by terrorists.
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Now Copts are expected to repay him with support in the country’s presidential election later this month.
“Pastors are telling congregants that it’s an imperative to vote and that staying at home in these elections is a sin,” said Ishak Ibrahim, a minority affairs researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a group that monitors attacks and discrimination against the Coptic Christian community.
El-Sissi has already ensured his victory in the balloting that runs from March 26-28, after the imprisonment of three contenders and the withdrawals of four other opponents.
So his campaign is focused on boosting turnout, and the country’s more than 10 million Coptic Christians are key to that goal. The aim is to surpass 47.5 percent turnout in 2014, when el-Sissi won almost 97 percent of the vote.
Many Copts fear a resurgence of Islamist power more than the autocratic tendencies of el-Sissi, a former head of military intelligence and army field marshal.
The extremist menace was underscored by twin Palm Sunday bombings at churches in Alexandria and Tanta that killed 43 people in April 2017 and the murders of 28 pilgrims traveling to a monastery near the city of Minya a month later.
“The church leadership has heard President el-Sissi’s language of civic equality and compares it favorably against the record of (former President) Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Ibrahim.
Under Morsi, clashes broke out between Muslims and Christians at the gates of St. Mark’s Cathedral, the Cairo home of the Coptic spiritual leader, Pope Tawadros II. Christians were horrified by Morsi’s failure to deploy police to the scene.
Three months later, Tawadros gave a televised speech supporting Morsi’s removal after weeks of street fighting and a military intervention that eventually led to el-Sissi’s ascendancy to the presidency.
“The Muslim Brotherhood were killing and destroying and it looked like nobody would stop them,” said John Kamal, a 28-year-old Coptic doctor of internal medicine in Cairo. “But from his first day in office, President Sissi made it clear that he stood by the Coptic community.”
Kamal points to the pride of place given to the massive cathedral ordered built at el-Sissi’s new administrative capital, a $45 billion city quickly rising in the desert sands 28 miles east of Cairo. “Some people say the money should go to the poor, but to me, it’s an important symbol of a new Egypt — and el-Sissi’s vision of equality,” said Kamal.
The exact cost of the cathedral’s construction has not been disclosed, but according to state media, the Egyptian government and armed forces donated more than $12 million to the project.
Building the cathedral is construction giant Orascom. Its primary owners are Coptic entrepreneurs Onsi and Nassef Sawiris, who rank among the wealthiest men in Egypt.
“The president has made it clear that every citizen in the land of Egypt has all the rights and all duties,” said Coptic Orthodox Church spokesman Pastor Poules Halim.
The president loosened restrictions on church construction, approving 53 new church buildings in the Nile Valley recently. He has also given Copts the right to days off for pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
El-Sissi has also deployed security forces in a fierce battle against Islamic State and other militants, especially in the Sinai. The murders of seven Christians in El Arish by the Islamic State’s Sinai-based Egyptian affiliate in February resulted in the mass exodus of hundreds of Christians from the northern part of the peninsula.
“What is wrong with the church endorsing the president?” said the church spokesman. “El-Sissi shows he is a president for all Egyptians.”
But the interplay of politics and religion worries Mina Magdy, a 32-year-old Cairo ophthalmologist and a Copt.
“The church is a spiritual institution whose purpose is to teach people the Christian faith,” he said. “I’m against the church exercising any role in the elections, either by mobilizing voters or calling for the election of a particular candidate.”
But many Christians are prickly when asked if their religious identity or economic standing influences their choice to vote and validate a second term for el-Sissi.
“My support for el-Sissi is not because I am a woman or because I am a Christian,” said Sylva Terzibashian, a 55-year-old executive assistant from the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. “We are now in a difficult period after being deceived by the word ‘revolution’ and we’re in the middle of a war — el-Sissi is doing his best.”
By “revolution,” she was referring to the Arab Spring that triggered protests that brought down former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 but paved the way for Morsi’s Islamist regime.
But el-Sissi’s handling of the shaky economy, his crackdown on freedom of expression and his suppression of political alternatives have created a false choice between the intolerance of Islamism and the authoritarianism of Egypt’s militarized state, said Ibrahim of the human rights watchdog.
“The more inclusive language about religious minorities is a step forward,” he said. “But the austerity measures in the economy, such as the currency devaluation and end of basic food subsidies, mean poor Christians and poor Muslims end up fighting over resources as much as religion.”