They periodically end up in the headlines of the world press insofar as protagonists of news like the ‘dramatic flight and emigration’ from Egypt or for acts of violence and repeated discrimination towards them. But the editor of Watani, the weekly newspaper of reference of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox community with about 250,000 readers and founded in the early 50s, neither seems to like nor to conform to the label of ‘victims’. The office of Youssef Sidhom, who inherited the direction from his father the founder of the newspaper, looks out onto one of the busiest streets of Cairo and is filled with the constant noise of exasperating horn blowing, used as much as brakes.
“The Copts came out of the Mubarak era with great hopes. They expected that all the forms of discrimination that they had suffered would be overcome. But this has not yet happened. Egypt is going through a crisis of instability. Therefore for the Coptic community too the most important challenge now is not to guarantee their rights but to save Egypt from drifting towards an Islamic state. The desire to acquire full and equal citizenship has been put on hold for the moment. The situation is complex and the Copts are involved with the moderate Muslims fighting against the attempt to transform Egypt into an Islamic state”.
A complex situation even more so following the approval of the Constitution last December...
Last month both the Christians and moderate Muslims lost their battle over the Constitution. Nonetheless we are not desperate yet as we are preparing for the next general elections. This date is at the top of our priorities. I believe that it is an illusion to imagine that the Egyptian moderates, Muslims and Copts, can together gain the majority in parliament. In such case they could reform Egypt and lead it towards an accomplished democracy, a civic state. The real challenge however is of try and build a strong opposition able to control 40-45% of the seats in parliament. This is the key: to construct a strong opposition, creating a coalition between the factions of the Christian and Muslim liberal parties and thus limit the attempt to translate those inappropriate articles of the Constitution into laws that aim at the construction of an Islamic state.
On the one hand there are the Muslim Brothers, the Salafis and other Islamist groups that will create a strong coalition. On the other there are various liberal parties: will they be able to unite in a strong coalition? This is what they have announced and it was comforting to learn last week that in the coming weeks they will try to create a common electoral list identifying one single candidate for each constituency. I hope that they manage to do so and do not argue. It will be the last possible battle.
Is there a specific programme that can keep the liberal parties united or are they rather cemented only by the fact that they have a common enemy?
They have done nothing to foster the union among themselves. What united them was the announcement of the Constitution, a passage that shocked a great number of Egyptians. This critical situation will keep the liberal parities united. Until today the liberal parties have known what they do not want rather than what they do want. The fact is that the present situation leaves no room to produce a development programme, and it is so delicate that each one has concentrated on the crucial point: to stop Egypt becoming a religious state. In the run-up to the election I do not think that the candidates will use their time to think up a political programme. The game will be played all on one issue: those supporting the civic state and those the religious one. Egyptians, make your choice.
But even before the revolution and its new version, the Egyptian Constitution made a precise reference to the principles of sharia as the source of the legislation. What change is there today?
Over the last decades Egypt has lived with a Constitution that clearly establishes that Islam is the religion of state and that the principles of sharia are the main source of the legislation. But the Egyptian moderates and the leadership of al-Azahr, together with the fight among the military on the one hand and the Islamists on the other, have contributed to avoiding Egypt becoming a religious state to all effects. Now, after the revolution, the army has been sidelined, while political Islam, under the umbrella of the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis, has made itself heard declaring: “Now we can govern Egypt and transform it into a religious state”. Today they have a free hand. We have seen this over the past months in the way in which they handled the draft and the vote on the Constitution. They make threatening announcements: we will change article 2 (which maintains the principles of sharia as source of the legislation) and you will see how we can transform Egypt into an Islamic state. When they threatened to change art. 2 substituting the ‘principles of Islamic law’ with a rather more binding 'the norms of Islamic law', al-Azhar rose up against the proposal. In this way art. 2 was left unchanged, but in the end they included art. 219 (which seeks to define what the principles of sharia are in a restrictive sense). Article 81 also raises a certain amount of concern. The inclusion of ‘society’ next to State as the subject that must guarantee ethics and customs could in fact hide the principle of ‘command of good and interdiction of evil’, which translates into religious police next to state police. These changes have triggered opposition and people have realised that in apparently harmless formulas, dangers can be hidden.
There is often talk of the fact that the Coptic community has been hit by a dramatically growing emigration towards the West. Can you give us confirmation of this?
Once again, as with regard to the participation of the Copts in protests, what is the reliable source of the facts that are going around? What is the proof? Of course, owing to the present serious and uncertain situation, and not knowing what tomorrow has in store for them, as soon as the Christians have the possibility to leave Egypt they do not hesitate to do so. But I am speaking of a very small minority. It is said that over one hundred thousand Copts have left Egypt over recent months, but there is no scientific proof in support of these numbers. We have asked all the foreign embassies in Egypt for estimates on emigration to the United States, England, Canada, Australia and France, also so as to compare these flows before and after the revolution. All these embassies have declared that they do not classify the emigration data according to religious belonging.
There must certainly be a rise in the number of emigrants, but it will concern both Christians and Muslims. The issue is however another one: even if one hundred thousand Copts had emigrated from Egypt in the last two years, the point is that we must think about the 8 million Copts who are still here and who cannot leave.
Sometimes it is said that the Copts are the only true Egyptians. Do you agree with this?
No, I do not agree. Undoubtedly the Copts are true Egyptians, this is obvious: they are not the only extraneous body in the country, as many people say. But they are not the only ones. It is true that in today’s language we use the term to refer specifically to the Christian Egyptians but in reality the ‘Copts’ are all the Egyptians, whether they be Christians or Muslims.
Do you ever feel in danger?
I grew up in the middle of a Muslim majority, I have many friends of Islamic faith, I live in the capital, many Muslims work with us here at Watani and I never feel threatened. But the Christians who live in the villages, separate from the Muslims, are often at risk owing to the presence of groups of fanatics. Before the revolution, the discrimination was carried out according to the law of the official bodies of the state. Today the legislation is still the same but the official state security services have other things to take care of. Groups of Islamist have taken over in their place. They are the ones threatening the Christians in our cities, villages and the rural areas.
What are the most serious forms of discrimination today towards the Christians?
The first one is the legislation on the places of worship: if the Christians want to build or restore a church, they must face a long bureaucratic procedure, until they obtain the president’s approval. Instead the Muslims can build mosques everywhere and very easily. In 2006 a Muslim MP presented a draft bill to change the legislation on this so that there would be one single law for all places of worship, regardless of the religion of belonging. The assembly approved the bill but it has never been made into law. The second form of discrimination is that no Christian can in practice aspire to having a place of responsibility or a high level in the civil service. The third and most dangerous form of discrimination is linked to education.
In school books marked expressions of political Islam are to be found, like for example the principle by which Islam is the only religion accepted by God. This is very sad as generations of young Egyptians have grown up under the influence of this ideology. Egypt needs two things first of all: to save the economy, as the country is dying economically, and to save the education system. We desperately need educational reform.