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Egypt's evolution

Egypt | As Egyptians celebrate a new Islamic president, Christians in the country worry about their future

For Christians living in predominantly Muslim Egypt, the week began with a heavy question: What does the election of an Islamic-fundamentalist president mean for the future of Christians in the country?

That question rings as loud as the cheers that erupted from Cairo's Tahrir Square on Sunday afternoon when Egyptian officials announced that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi narrowly won a presidential runoff against former regime member Ahmed Shafiq.

No doubt, the occasion was momentous: Morsi's win marked the first time that Egyptians had freely elected a president in their country's modern history.

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Revolutionaries overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak's 30 years of dictatorial rule last year. Nearly 16 months later, Egyptian voters had chosen a leader for themselves in a country that had suppressed free speech and harbored corruption for decades.

The tens of thousands of demonstrators packing Tahrir Square last weekend seemed to celebrate the freedom to elect a president as much-if not more-than the president they elected.

Indeed, Morsi had garnered tepid support during the first rounds of presidential elections in May. But when those contests put him into a runoff with a former member of Mubarak's regime, Egyptians faced a stark choice: a throwback to the old ways or a future with an Islamist leader.

Even some secularists chose the Islamic leader after military officials made a series of sweeping declarations on the eve of the runoff: The ruling military council drained the presidency of significant powers, and held onto powers of legislation and security for itself. Many Egyptians balked at what they saw as a bald power grab at best and an intentional coup at worst.

If that helped propel Morsi to win, it's unclear what powers he'll possess in coming weeks. Demonstrators say they are determined to force the military council to return powers to the presidency ahead of a scheduled handover to civilian rule on July 1.

Meanwhile, minority groups-including Christians that make up as much as 10 percent of the population-wonder what Morsi's win means for them in the long run.

In an email two days after Morsi's victory, Pastor Sameh Maurice of Kasr el Dobara Church in Cairo told WORLD that Christians are concerned about Morsi's presidency.

Kasr el Dobara-the largest evangelical congregation in the Middle East-has had a front-row seat to the massive demonstrations over the last year for a simple reason: The church sits just off Tahrir Square.

During last year's 18-day revolution that ousted Mubarak, the church's volunteer doctors tended injured protesters and interacted with demonstrators in the streets. (See "The new Egyptian wilderness," WORLD, June 2.)

Like many Christians, some in the church hoped that the government and presidency would take a secularist direction, and allow greater freedoms for Christians already facing oppression.

The Muslim Brotherhood's sweep of nearly 50 percent of parliamentary seats last year was a blow. The election of the group's candidate to the presidency earlier this week left them stunned, according to pastor Maurice, "It was a shock because we predicted that Shafiq would be the winner."

Their concerns aren't unfounded: Morsi represents a conservative, fundamentalist strain in the Muslim Brotherhood and has openly advocated for conforming civil legislation to Islamic law. Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote that Morsi "openly endorses a strict Islamic vision."

Morsi tried to allay Christians' fears during his campaign and after his election on Sunday, saying he would be a president "for all Egyptians." Maurice, the church pastor, welcomed those comments, but added, "We are used to the Muslim Brotherhood to promise, and then they do not act as they promised."

Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood originally promised not to field a candidate for the presidency at all. Meanwhile, Morsi promised during his campaign that he would uphold Egypt's Camp David peace treaty with Israel. The day after his election, Iranian media quoted Morsi as saying, "We will reconsider the Camp David Accord."

Those realities lead Christians to doubt assurances that an Islamist president would protect them. "Christians are very afraid-afraid of the unknown and the uncertainty of what may happen to the country," said Maurice. "The future is uncertain."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD.

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