Trepidation among the Copts
What do Egypt's Copts think of the new president, asks Nader Habib
As head of the Presidential Elections Commission Farouk Sultan read out the results of the presidential elections this week, millions of Copts across the country were glued to their television screens.
At stake, they felt, was not just the future of the country, but also their own destiny as a religious minority. Concerned about the views expressed by the Muslim Brotherhood, many Copts did not conceal their disappointment at the victory of Mohamed Mursi in the elections.
Egypt's election of its first civilian president may be seen as a landmark achievement by many, but the trepidation within the Coptic community is too widespread to be overlooked.
Donia Wagdy, a journalist, said waiting for the presidential election outcome was like waiting for exam results. Moments before Sultan read out the results, the electricity went out in her house, she said, and then suddenly the neighbourhood erupted with joy.
"Mursi, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar," the neighbours started shouting. And Wagdy, who voted for Amr Moussa in the first round and Shafik in the second, was upset.
"I support a civilian state that respects the law and doesn't discriminate among citizens. I voted for Shafik not because I like him, but because I want a civilian state. I couldn't vote for Mursi because his television appearances were neither reassuring nor even cheerful," she said.
Wagdy said that some of those who support Mursi, especially Safwat Hegazi, keep coming up with "screwball ideas", such as the call for reviving the caliphate or for making Jerusalem the capital of Egypt. But she said she was willing to give Mursi the benefit of the doubt nonetheless.
"Mursi deserves a chance to prove his goodwill and to work for the creation of a civil and democratic state, a state which respects human rights," Wagdy said.
However, Fadel Tawfik, an engineer, remained suspicious of the political agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood. He started his career working on the enlargement of the Suez Canal "at the time when we [Christians hand-in-hand with Muslims] went through difficult times and our lives were endangered."
Tawfik said he could not trust those who want to rent out the Suez Canal to non-Egyptians.
He is also worried by the rise in attacks on churches. "Under the old regime, there used to be a church burned once every year, just to keep us on our toes. In the year and half since the revolution, six churches have been burned and the culprits have got away," he said.
The Copts have some legitimate complaints. In the centuries preceding Mohamed Ali's coming to power in 1805, they were not treated as first-class citizens. Forced to dress in a certain fashion, kept from certain careers, and forced to pay the gezya (poll tax for non-Muslims), the Copts were not the equals of the Muslims in pre-modern times.
Macarious Mounir, an engineer, posted on Facebook: "Among the Coptic Orthodox Church liturgy, prayers of the Holy Mass is to pray for the president to be bestowed wisdom and help from God."
The prayer starts with the priest saying, "Remember, O Lord, the ruler (king) of our land, thy servant (...)", to which the deacon replies, "Pray that Christ our God, grant us mercy and compassion before the mighty rulers, and incline their hearts with goodness towards us at all times, and forgive us our sins."
Few are reassured by claims that they should put their trust in heaven or in the kingdom yet to come. The view that earthly gains are not worthy of good Christians is not likely to alleviate the political concerns of the Coptic community.
However, Mursi's election may have been a blessing in disguise, said artist Wagdy Habashy, who argued that a Shafik win would have pushed the country into a vicious cycle of violence that could have led to foreign intervention or even partition.
He urged the Coptic community to give the new president a chance. "We should stand behind Mursi and support him. This is how democracy works. I liked Mursi's first speech because he vowed to be president of all Egyptians. But he didn't say much to reassure the artists and the intellectuals," Habashy said.
Some Copts recall the encounter between the Ottoman sultan and the Coptic pope during the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Introduced to the sultan Abdel-Aziz at the time, pope Dimitrius kissed his chest, a gesture that alarmed the sultan, who had his guards ask the pope what he meant by this action.
The pope said that in the Bible it is written that "the heart of the king is in the hands of the Lord." When he had kissed the sultan's heart, he explained, he had kissed the hand of the Lord.
Mursi received a congratulating telegram from the caretaker pope, Anba Bakhomious, who was on the head of a Coptic delegation that visited Egypt's first freely elected president on Monday.
Many Copts are willing to see things this way again, but only if Mursi works for a secular state and an inclusive culture. Father Angelos of the Coptic Church perhaps spoke for many when he said that he would pray that God would guide Mursi's steps "along a path of democracy and equality for all."