Uphill task for Christian candidates in Egypt’s polls
Cairo - In campaigning prior to Egypt’s parliamentary election, lawyer Tharwat Bekheit targets all potential voters in his Ain Shams constituency in the north-eastern part of Cairo.
Bekheit, 46, has been working in the service of his constituents for almost 15 years. A few years ago, he helped thousands of residents attain identity cards for the first time. He has worked closely with other politicians to improve health conditions by convincing the government to establish more clinics and hospitals there.
Now, he is running for parliament and says it is time his constituents rewarded him for all the work he has done for them over the years.
“I served everybody without even putting this parliament candidacy issue in mind,” Bekheit said. “I think everybody will remember my good deeds of the past at the election time.”
There is, however, a caveat: Most of Bekheit’s election rivals are Muslim and he is a member of the Christian minority. He says when it comes to voting, voters will prefer a Muslim candidate to a Christian one, even if the latter is more competent.
Scores of independent Christian candidates are running for seats in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, the first phase of which will start October 18th. Christian candidates are also running as part of political party lists, including the one of the Salafist al-Nour.
Nevertheless, Christian candidates are afraid their religious affiliation will be a stumbling block in the predominantly Muslim country. Christians make up about 10% of Egypt’s population of 90 million and Christian political representation in elected bodies has always been weak.
“We do not have a Christian political elite that has been formed as a natural product of this country’s political life,” said activist Sameh Fawzi. “Christian politicians are on the political stage only because the state wants them to be present.”
To make up for this lack of representation, Egypt imposed a quota on Christian representation in elected bodies. An article, in almost all Egyptian constitutions since the 1960s, gives the president the right to appoint a certain number of parliament members and the country’s presidents have always opted to appoint Christians.
The current constitution gives the president the right to appoint 32 parliament members. Egypt’s election law itself makes it necessary for the 120 candidates fielded by every political party to include 24 Christian candidates. This means that the next parliament will necessarily include 24 Christian members at least, apart from the Christians the president might appoint.
Fawzi says, however, this is not a problem of the quota specified for Christians in party lists but of the challenges that will face independent Christian candidates.
He was a member of parliament under former president Hosni Mubarak. But he says he would never have made it to the legislature had he not been appointed by Mubarak.
“Independent Christian candidates face a large number of problems and most of them are related to their faith, money and family ties,” he said. “Christian candidates hardly win in the constituencies where there is a majority of Christian residents because the elections usually turn in these constituencies into religious rivalry between Muslims and Christians there.”
Banners and posters with Bekheit’s name on them are posted along the streets of Ain Shams, where almost 35% of residents are Christian. He has a plan to revolutionise government services in the constituency, improve the local environment and also suggests new projects that can create jobs for youths.
“More important still, an MP is someone who suggests legislation,” he said. “We have a load of laws that need to be made.”
Still, he has the tough mission to convince his constituents that he is as competent as his Muslim rivals and deserves one of the three seats specified for his constituency. And the general Egyptian voting public still needs to go a long way to put religion aside when judging anybody for public office.
Anti-Christian propaganda is also at its strongest coming from religious radicals, including the Salafists, who say a non-Muslim is not fit enough to represent Muslims. Some Muslims seem to be strongly affected by this rhetoric.
“Why should I vote for a Christian candidate?” Hind Ali, a retired civil servant, said. “A Muslim candidate is more aware of the needs of his Muslim constituents.”
Egypt’s Muslims have always been for the most part tolerant of their Christian compatriots but when it comes to selecting a representative in parliament, a doctor for examination or even a supermarket to buy from, religion often is a deciding factor, especially if there is a Muslim alternative. Some Salafist preachers even encourage this trend.
However, some Egyptians, including civil servant Ayman Kamal, say they do not have a problem with voting for a Christian candidate as long as the person is fit for the job.
“This is not about religion but about who will serve his/her constituents best,” Kamal, 32, said.
But this does nothing to raise Bekheit’s morale. He says failure by Christian candidates to win seats in parliament through the votes of their Muslim constituents will force Christians in general into isolation.
“Christians have abstained from political participation for years,” he said. “If they fail in these elections, they will maintain their political boycott for years to come.”