As Egypt's presidential elections come to a close, with the Brotherhood claiming presidential victory, the future for Egypt's indigenous Christians, the Copts, looks bleak.
Earlier, after the first presidential elections of May 23-24, any number of Islamists denounced them, bemoaning that it was the Copts who were responsible for the secularist candidate Ahmed Shafiq's good showing.
Even though Shafiq is a "remnant" of the Mubarak regime, under which Copts suffered, he is seen as the lesser of two evils to an Islamist presidency. As one Copt put it: "What did they want us to do? Whoever says that supporting Shafiq is a crime against the January 25 Revolution, we ask him to advise us for whom should we vote? The sea is in front of us and the Islamists are behind us."
Abu Ismail, the Islamic fundamentalist Salafi presidential candidate who was disqualified, expressed "great disappointment" in "our Coptic brethren," saying, "I do not understand why the Copts so adamantly voted for Ahmed Shafiq," and portraying the vote as some sort of conspiracy between the Copts, the old regime, and even Israel: "Exactly what relationship and benefit do the Copts have with the old regime?" he asked.
Tarek al-Zomor, a prominent figure of the Gama'a al-Islamiyya—the terrorist organization that slaughtered some 60 European tourists during the Luxor Massacre—"demanded an apology from the Copts" for voting for Shafiq, and threatened that "this was a fatal error."
To an extent, of course, Islamist attacks on Copts were due less to the Copts' votes for Shafiq, and more to do with the usual animosity for Christians—an animosity that seems to seek any excuse to attack them. By virtue of their greater numbers, many more Muslims did in fact vote for Shafiq than did Christians; even the Islamic Sufi Council of Egypt expressed its support for Shafiq instead of for the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate who advocates Islamic Sharia law.
Realizing that threats, with which Copts are well acquainted, would not prevent Christians from voting for the secular candidate, and in a request that borders on the comical if not absurd, Islamists began imploring the Copts to vote for the Brotherhood's Morsi, who some say vows to return the Copts to bondage. Islamist kingpin Yusuf al-Qaradawi himself called on politically active Muslims to go meet with the Copts and "explain to them" how they have nothing to fear from an Islamist president, telling them that "Shafiq will be of no use to you."
Most adamant was popular TV personality Muhammad Hassan, a cleric who appeared several times assuring Copts that they have "nothing to fear from the application of Sharia," which he portrayed as the best guarantor for their safety and freedom. A day before the elections, Hassan implored the Copts "to elect Sharia and vote for Dr. Muhammad Morsi, promising them peace and security, and that they would live in prosperity under Sharia law."
Sheikh Muhammad Hassan is, incidentally, the same cleric who says Islam forbids Muslims from smiling at infidels—except whenever Muslims need to win them over. One week before he began beseeching Copts to vote for Sharia, he was in Saudi Arabia making disparaging comments about "those who say Allah has a son," the Koran's condemnatory language for Christians.
What does all this mean? For a long time, the various Egyptian regimes and Islamist organizations have downplayed the numbers and significance of the nation's Christians, the Copts, sometimes saying they make up as few as 5% of the total population— a statistic many Western resources quote without hesitation. Others institutions, however—pointing to the Coptic Orthodox Church's birth and death registry—say Egypt's Copts constitute up to 20% of the total population. Based on the Islamist response to the first presidential elections, such a figure may not be so farfetched.
Either way, Copts constitute the largest Christian bloc in the Middle East—a circumstance that has other implications. As seen during the presidential elections, large numbers of Christians may help to stave off the Islamization of Egypt. But if Egypt's government does go Islamist—and early presidential election results indicate it will—fears of persecution on a grand scale become legitimate precisely because of the Copts' large numbers, which will work against them: Millions of powerless Christians will be seen as troublesome and unwelcome infidels, not just by "extremists," but by the government as well, which, as history teaches, can be the first step to genocide.
Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum