Fearing Persecution, Egypt's Christians Back Parties Most Likely to Beat Islamists

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Wissam Nassar / Corbis

Egyptian Coptic Christian women help voters find their registration numbers outside a polling station in the Manshiet Nasser district of Cairo on Nov. 29, 2011

Egypt's Islamists appeared to sweep the vote in the mostly poor and rural areas of the country that voted Dec. 14 and 15 in the second round of a three-stage parliamentary election. But Egypt's minority Christians, motivated by a desire to see checks on the Islamists' power in the legislature, also turned out to vote — mostly for liberal parties — in the districts of Upper Egypt where the sectarian divide often runs deepest.

Even before the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, Christians — who make up roughly 10% of Egypt's 85 million citizens — had complained of heightened discrimination and sectarian violence in recent years. Then last winter's uprising unleashed a wave of radical Islamism into an unstable security environment fraught with economic despair, producing a dramatic spike in sectarian violence in the months since Mubarak's ouster. And Christians complain that the ruling military has done little to stop it. In at least one case, security forces actually joined in attacks on Christians. That was in October, when soldiers attacked a Christian protest in downtown Cairo, killing 24 people, some of whom were run over by army vehicles.

Many Christian voters canvassed by TIME at the polls in the country's rural center said they had voted for the liberal groups that emerged strongest after the first round of voting — often sacrificing a vote for their preferred party in favor of backing the one most likely to succeed in preventing an Islamist sweep. "I wanted to vote for the Continuous Revolution party, but they only got 7% in the first round," said Ibram Faris, a 22-year-old Christian resident of Tizment al-Gharbia, a predominantly Muslim village about 70 miles south of Cairo. Instead, Faris gave his vote to the more popular liberal Wafd party.

The region known as Upper Egypt, which encompasses the villages south of Cairo and stretches along the Nile all the way to the Sudanese border, has long been plagued by sectarian tensions. Here, the competition for jobs and resources, coupled with a growing religious conservatism and a largely absent government, has fueled escalating outbreaks of violence in recent years. Bloody riots have erupted over religious conversions and the construction of churches and mosques — a process far more onerous for Christians than it is for Muslims. In the months since the uprising, the region has been rocked by church burnings, small-scale riots and an Islamist sit-in that ultimately ousted the Christian governor of Qena.

With Islamists predicted to win a landslide majority in parliament, Christians fear a system even more rigidly fundamentalist and neglectful of their rights than the last one. "They'll make [Egypt] an Islamic state, and they will force us to wear certain things," said Selwa Gaber, a Christian housewife who cast her vote in the Upper Egyptian city of Beni Suef. Her daughter, Marina Magdy, said, "[The Christians] will vote for the Wafd and the stairs and the fish," citing two candidates' electoral symbols. (The symbols are part of a system to provide guidance to illiterate voters). Neither Magdy nor her mother knew who the stairs or the fish represented, but what mattered, they said, is that they were anti-Islamist.

Mohamed Shehata, a poll monitor for the ultraconservative Salafist Nour party, insisted that such fears were overblown: "We're all one. We're not separated by religion." He said that even though the Nour party would seek an Islamic state, it had no plans to alter the legal rights of Christians. Supporters of both the Nour party and the more moderate and popular Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), claimed many Christians had even voted for them.

But Christian voters disputed that claim. "There are very few Christians here, but I'm sure they will all vote like me," said Faris. "Christians will reject the concept of parties based on religion."

Religious intolerance is one reason Egypt's Christians and liberals fear an Islamist government, but another is the economy. Egypt's tourism revenues have already dropped by one-third this year, Reuters reported on Dec. 13. The country's ancient heritage sites — many of them located in Upper Egypt — have fared worse in the tourist trade than have Egypt's picturesque beach resorts.

But Christians and liberals fear that it's the beach resorts that an Islamist government would target first. A number of candidates from the Nour party and at least one from FJP have promised to ban alcohol and revealing clothing. "I personally am worried about tourism because the Salafis want to close the beaches," said Mohamed Heggo, a Muslim salesman in the town of Beni Suef, south of Cairo. Heggo said he had once visited Ras Mohamed, a marine nature reserve on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and one of the world's prime diving locations. Though he doesn't work in tourism, Heggo said he could appreciate the spot's value. "A place like Ras Mohamed is 80% of the tourism revenue," he added, and for that reason, he would vote for a liberal party.