Egypt's Power Struggle and the Fate of Christians
Egypt's Coptic Christian minority fears that the restoration of parliament, which will grant greater power to Islamists, will be used to institute Sharia law and stifle religious freedom.
In defiance of Egypt's top generals and highest court, Muslim Brotherhood President-elect Mohammed Morsi reopened parliament last Tuesday. In only his third week in office, Morsi's rapid-fire pursuit to broaden the Brotherhood's power openly challenged the country's ruling military council.
Egypt's Coptic Christian minority fears that the restoration of parliament, which will grant greater powers to Islamists, will be used to institute Sharia law and stifle religious freedom.
Egypt's lower chamber, the People's Assembly, convened on July 10, after a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court on June 14 ordering the parliament's dissolution. Saad el-Katatni, the assembly's speaker, told lawmakers the session was being held to seek a "second opinion" by an appellate court in an effort to reinstate the Islamist-dominated legislature. The court, however, did not accede to the chamber's request; it upheld its earlier ruling that the parliament had been elected unconstitutionally and that its dissolution was "final and binding."
If the parliament were to be reinstated, the Muslim Brotherhood—which holds nearly half the seats in the Islamist-dominated assembly—would head both the legislature and the presidency. Yet, a Brotherhood-controlled civilian government appears to be what Egypt's ruling generals fear most. Only a week prior to Morsi's announcement as president, the military announced a constitutional declaration on June 17 that expands its control over civilian politicians and strips the head of state of most of his powers. Morsi's move to defy the court ruling by reconvening parliament was not only considered to be illegal by the military council, but also a direct challenge to the establishment's authority.
In a warning to the president, the military said it would support the country's "legitimacy, constitution and law" by upholding the court's ruling. "[This is] language that means [the military] will not stand by and watch the rulings of the country's top court ignored or breached," the Christian Science Monitor reported.
Despite the military's grip on power, Bret Stephens, an editor of The Wall Street Journal, argues that Egypt has already been "lost" to Islamists and that a radical future, similar to what was seen in Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, lingers on the horizon. "Egypt under the Brotherhood will seek to arm Hamas and remilitarize the Sinai. By degrees, it will seek to extract concessions from the U.S. as the price of its good behavior. By degrees, it will make radical alliances in the Middle East and beyond."
Daniel Pipes, President of the Middle East Forum, argues the contrary, however, saying that the military, not the Brotherhood, has the ultimate power in Egypt. "Not only was the [presidential] election symbolic, but it was also illusory, in that the military leadership scripted it," Pipes wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Times. "[Mohammed Morsi's] job is undefined. A military coup could brush him aside… Mohamed Tantawi is the real ruler of Egypt. Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), field marshal, and minister of defense, he serves not only as the commander-in-chief but also as the effective head of all three of Egypt's branches of government… The [military] exploits the Muslim Brotherhood and other proxies as its civilian fronts, a role they are happy to play, as it has permitted the Islamists to garner an outsized percentage of the parliamentary vote and then to win the presidency."
Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, who make up 10 percent of the population, hope that Pipes is right; they are fearful that if the Brotherhood gains leverage over the military, the country could quickly transform into an Islamic state.
"There is a Brotherhood strategy to work toward building an Islamic country," Yousef Sidhom, editor of the weekly Watani newspaper and a Coptic Church official, told The Associated Press. He added that the Brotherhood will withhold government positions from Christians, tax non-Muslims, and base education around Islam.
The Brotherhood will not likely accede to pressure by the military: its members vowed to "fight in the courts and the streets to reinstate the Parliament," according to The New York Times. Prior to the reconvening of parliament, the Brotherhood's Secretary-General, Mahmoud Hussein, called for a "million-man march" to "regain the parliament," and denounced the military's hold on power. A few hundred protestors supporting the Brotherhood responded to the call in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Monday, chanting, "We love you Morsi," and "Down with military rule."
"This may end being a game of 'chicken' [to see] who withdraws his decision first," Dr. Omar Ashour, a scholar at the Brookings Doha Center and director of the Middle East Politics Graduate Studies Program at the University of Exeter, told msnbc.com.
All Egyptians, including Christians, anticipate the power struggle, which Reuters labeled "a war of attrition," to be far from over. More battles lie ahead, including the drafting of Egypt's constitution, the right of which last month was stripped from the parliament in a decree that authorizes the military to appoint the body to write the document. In this confrontation for power, nothing less than the very ideals of Egypt's revolution—mainly that a democratically elected government would replace the military—are at stake.
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