Egypt — June 2009

Sociopolitical Situation

Following the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, the international community has focused its support on democratic reform in the Middle East as one way of combating terrorism. There is a keen interest in how Egypt demonstrates effective reform to address its developmental challenges. At the same time, Egypt is also committed to ensuring social peace and stability. So, it faces the same challenges shared by most countries that seek to balance counter-terrorist actions while preserving civil liberties.

In recent decades, reform in Egypt was challenged by a conservative culture and bureaucratic elite that adopted a centralized approach to public planning and decision-making. This situation began to change slowly and, in the last few years, there have been a number of encouraging signs in the increased debate about women’s rights, economic reforms and decentralization. Attitudes to political reform have also started to change in key ministries at different levels within the ruling party. Nevertheless, the debate about democracy has not acquired sufficient pace particularly on issues such as political freedoms and human rights, the constitutional framework and political representation and participation.

Fighting in Gaza between Israel and Hamas in January 2009 resulted in 1,417 deaths (926 civilians, including 116 women and 313 minors, and 491 combatants). The war impacted Egypt’s political position, for which it has been criticized across the Arab and Muslim world. It was expected that Egypt would have opened the Rafah crossing to ease the suffering of Palestinian civilians, use its political clout to stop the war, defend its national security and use this crisis to advance its regional role. Instead, the flow of medical assistance to Gaza through Rafah remained at a minimal level.

A slowdown in the domestic economy has exacerbated social discontent (fueled by price increases for staples in 2008), sparking sporadic outbursts of unrest over the last year. Yet, the government continues to press ahead with its program of economic reform, aimed at raising living standards and creating employment.

A new fiscal stimulus package to boost economic growth is likely to lead to a severe deterioration of the public finances in the fiscal year 2009. Experts now forecast a deficit of 7.8 percent of the GDP in 2009. Economists have made a downward adjustment to GDP growth forecast, owing to a deteriorating outlook for export growth as the European Union’s recession continues. They expect GDP growth of 5.1 percent in 2009 and 4.9 percent in 2010. The trade deficit will narrow in 2009, as falling commodity prices reduce the import bill.

Religious Situation

There is no official count for the number of Christians in Egypt today. The state’s census bureau keeps this as confidential information. Some believe this is done to prevent Christians, the vast majority of whom belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, from making demands for equitable treatment. Some believe, however, that there are up to 12 million Christians living in Egypt, or 15 percent of Egypt’s population of 80 million.

The Egyptian Constitution stipulates all Egyptians are equal under the law. But discrimination against Christians is widely practiced and is sanctioned by the state. Areas of discrimination include, but are not limited to, education, employment, freedom of religion, construction of churches and parliamentary representation. Many high ranking jobs are out of reach to Christians. Examples are: police and security positions, mayors, public offices in general and most diplomatic positions.

Egypt’s present parliament includes just two Christian elected representatives — just 0.45 percent of the 444 representatives. One Christian parliamentarian, however, has been disqualified for holding dual citizenship. And typically, the few Christians appointed by the president are more loyal to the government than to their faith community.

Thus, many Christians are leaving the country of their forefathers and are settling elsewhere. Some embrace Islam.

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