Egypt’s Christians Vote in Historic Election

CAIRO (CNS) — Egyptian Christians voting in their nation’s historic presidential election were throwing much of their support behind candidates who aimed to check the power of the Islamist parties.

Although no official statistics on the Christian vote were reported, in the days before and during the election, many of Egypt’s Christians said they would support candidates who served under ousted President Hosni Mubarak and said the ideals of the 2011 revolution might have been too ambitious.

“For me as a Christian I have only a few choices – the other side is Islamic, I can’t choose them,” said a man identified only as Rami, 45, a worshipper at the Catholic basilica in Cairo’s Heliopolis district. Christians like Rami said they would support former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq or former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, who also served as secretary-general of the Arab League for 10 years. On May 28, the Egyptian election commission said Shafiq would face the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi in a June 16-17 runoff for the nation’s first freely elected president.

In the days before the May 23-24 presidential election, Rami told Catholic News Service, “Even if Shafiq and Moussa are from the old regime, they offer security and freedom to live the way we want. Around our communities these are the choices, although there are some with the revolution who spent time on Tahrir Square and will go with (Hamdeen) Sabahi,” a former opposition leader.

Father Sherif Nashef, assistant pastor at the Melkite Catholic Church of St. Cyril, also described a community forced into pragmatism at the ballot box.

“When people see a man like Shafiq in power they will feel comfortable. They feel their country is in safe hands,” he said, summing up the grudging support for figures associated with Mubarak’s regime, which suppressed political Islamism in an often-brutal manner.

“Shafiq may be supported by the army if he is in power; they will keep us safe,” said a woman identified only as Ines, a 39-year old accountant attending the Maronite Catholic Church in Heliopolis.

“In the beginning we were with the revolution, but after all that has happened we are against. Nothing has changed for the better. Sabahi may be a good man and a secularist, but his ideas are too ambitious for Egypt right now,” she said.

“Under Shafiq, at least we will be back as we were. That’s enough,” she told CNS. Islamist political parties already hold about 65 percent of seats in Egypt’s Parliament. Similar sentiments were apparent in less well-off Christian areas such as Manshiyet Nasser, a hillside slum in eastern Cairo that is home to at least 30,000 mainly Coptic Orthodox.

There, despite some support for Sabahi — who has made fighting poverty a key plank of his campaign — voters polled by local media said Shafiq’s secularist, strongman credentials made him the obvious choice.

For years, Christians have complained about discrimination when it comes to building places of worship and holding senior administrative positions. More recently, many have been rattled by a year of military rule marked by a series of seemingly sectarian clashes — both in distant villages and Cairo — and several church burnings.

These have added to more general fears of Islamists placing restrictions on modest dress and selling and consuming alcohol.

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