In what’s likely to be the least dramatic election in recent memory, some 65 million Egyptians, roughly ten percent of them Christians, will begin heading to the polls today to determine whether President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former army general who came to power after ousting a Muslim Brotherhood-led government in 2013, will get another term.
When he ran the first time in 2014, el-Sisi claimed victory with a staggering 96.9 percent of the vote, in an outcome many observers called “rigged” and a “sham.” If anything, he may do even better now, since most potential rivals have been arrested, intimidated or bribed into submission.
Officially, his only challenger is actually a supporter, Moussa Mustafa Moussa, who declines even to criticize el-Sisi on the campaign trail.
That handwriting on the wall doesn’t mean Egyptians lack frustrations, especially with a faltering economy that’s brought recent spikes in prices for basic goods and in unemployment. Little of that, however, seems likely to be reflected in this week’s vote, with the only real question being what percentage of eligible voters will even bother to show up.
Even in the absence of reliable polling, one point seems fairly clear: Four years into his rule, el-Sisi still commands strong support from the country’s most important minority group, meaning its Coptic Christian population.
Pro-el-Sisi banners hang overhead in neighborhoods where Copts reside, often showing the president standing alongside Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II. El-Sisi has made a habit of attending Christmas services at Cairo’s Coptic cathedral, and the personal rapport between him and the Coptic leader is described as “excellent.”
When my Crux colleague Inés San Martín and I were in Egypt in 2015, we were struck by how pervasive support for el-Sisi seemed at the Christian grassroots.
Father Rafic Greiche, a Greek Melkite priest who serves as spokesman for the Catholic Church in Egypt, said el-Sisi would probably draw at least 85 percent Christian support in an open vote.
“If you ask a normal Christian in the street, it’s complete love,” Grieche said.
Recently, el-Sisi has stepped up the security presence around Christian churches and other sites, amid a wave of jihadist attacks that’s left 100 Christians dead since December 2016, when bombs ripped through a small church in St. Mark’s Cathedral complex in Cairo, the seat of the Coptic papacy, killing nearly 30 worshippers.
Despite mounting international criticism of el-Sisi’s human rights record, many Egyptian Christians see his strong rule, backed by the army, as the main firebreak against the sort of disintegration and sectarian chaos that’s gripped neighboring Middle Eastern states such as Iraq and Syria, where the Christian minorities have been devastated.
Yet Christian backing for el-Sisi isn’t universal. There’s a small but influential circle of Christian intellectuals and activists unhappy with what they see as the Church’s uncritical embrace of “the regime” – a term which, in Egypt, doesn’t just refer to a single leader, but to the powerful military/political complex that’s basically run the country since the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the mid-1950s.
That discontent is especially strong among younger Christians in Egypt, many of whom are veterans of the Tahrir Square Revolution that brought down the government of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
“It’s all fake,” Mina Thabet told us in 2015, referring to el-Sisi’s image as a defender of Christians. Thabet is a human rights observer with a Cairo-based NGO called the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms.
“We still face discrimination, violence, and hate speech,” said Thabet, himself a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
“It’s the same as under Mubarak, because it’s the same regime,” he said.
I remember meeting a young member of the Muslim Brotherhood on that 2015 trip, who was convinced that Christians and moderate young Muslims in Egypt are in exactly the same boat, and, rather than looking at each other with suspicion, they should be joining forces to press for democracy and a genuinely pluralistic society.
He pointed to the August 2013 “Rabaa massacre,” referring to a square in the Nasr City section of Cairo where an estimated 850-1,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed for protesting Morsi’s ouster. Human Rights Watch termed the carnage “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.” This young Muslim said it was the same dynamic as the “Maspero Massacre” in 2011, when 28 Coptic Christians were killed when the army and security forces attacked one of their demonstrations.
Ishak Ibrahim, a human rights researcher with another Cairo-based NGO called the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, and also a Coptic Christian, conceded that many Christians feel safer under el-Sisi, but said it’s a serious mistake.
“Under Sisi it’s like it was under Mubarak or Morsi, and nothing is going to improve,” Ibrahim said.
“The Church does not represent all Christians,” activist Bishoy Tamri, a member of the Maspero Youth Union, a Coptic human rights organization born in the wake of the January 2011 protests, recently told the French Press Agency.
“We reject the church’s exploitation for political purposes,” said Tamri, adding that his organization’s activities, “like many civil society movements,” had been curtailed because of a widening crackdown.
As Egypt’s incumbent watches the returns roll in this week, therefore, he would seem to have little to worry about in terms of the immediate result.
The longer-term question for el-Sisi, however, is whether he can continue supplying the security and stability Egyptians crave, but also gradually open up greater space for the kind of society for which his most idealistic young people, including many of the country’s young Christians, still are dreaming seven years after those remarkable events in Tahrir Square.