In the weeks before Egyptian voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution in mid-January, the leader of the country’s Coptic Orthodox Church made a dramatic move: Pope Tawadros II wrote an editorial in Egypt’s state-sponsored newspapers, urging Coptic Christians to vote for the new document.
It wasn’t the pope’s first foray into politics. When Egyptian demonstrators demanded the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi last July, the pope appeared with a Muslim cleric and military leaders announcing Morsi’s forced departure.
(Morsi—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—had grown increasingly unpopular after rushing through an Islamist constitution in 2012, and declaring sweeping presidential powers for himself.)
But the Coptic pope’s latest political move was still controversial, even among some members of his church. Christians—long an oppressed minority in Egypt—remain divided over whether churches should press for more public influence in politics or remain neutral on state affairs.
Some Christians worry official church involvement in state affairs will inflame Islamist notions that Christians were responsible for Morsi’s downfall, despite the masses of secularists and moderate Muslims that demonstrated in Tahrir Square.
Indeed, days after Morsi’s ouster last summer, Islamist mobs attacked, looted, and torched dozens of Coptic, Catholic, and evangelical churches across the country.
By last December, the Egyptian interim government had declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and froze funds of hundreds of the group’s charitable agencies. Muslim Brotherhood leaders lamented the move would open the door for “Christian groups to draw poor Muslims away from their religion” by offering relief to those in need.
Beyond the debate over church involvement, one reality seemed clear: The new constitution would have passed either way in January. Egyptian voters approved the document by nearly 98 percent.
The new constitution offers improvements over the 2012 version, including written protections for women and Christians. But the document also strengthens military power, and raises concerns that military leaders could wield outsized influence in coming years.
The military’s top leader, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, already heads the country’s interim government, and says he hasn’t decided whether he’ll run for president. His decision may hinge partly on voter turnout: Though only 38.6 percent of voters went to the polls in January, the turnout was higher than the 32 percent that voted for Morsi’s constitution in 2012. (The 2012 document passed by 63 percent.)
Some election observers were more concerned about the near-unanimous approval of the new constitution. A Muslim Brotherhood boycott of the referendum contributed to the overwhelming consensus, but reports also emerged that military leaders squelched open opposition to the document, and arrested a handful of opponents.
A reporter for The New Yorker in Cairo wrote that he asked a spokesman for the High Election Commission if it was legal for an Egyptian citizen to post a sign calling for people to vote no on the constitution. He said the spokesman replied: “If some person has been arrested right now, then the investigating authority has evidence of their involvement in certain crimes.”
Egyptian satirist Bassem Youseff wrote the referendum might as well have offered the options “yes” and “definitely yes.”
Still, at many polling places across the country, the mood was festive, as vendors sold Egyptian flags and voters posed for pictures with soldiers patrolling outside polling stations. Many said they were eager to move forward with a new constitution after years of political chaos.
Iman Mahmoud, a voter in a city north of Cairo, told The New York Times she hoped the vote would dispel criticism that the military had taken over the country: “We’re here so the world will know that this is the people’s will, not a military coup.”