Uphill task for Christian candidates in Egypt’s polls

Friday 16/10/2015
How will Christian candidates fare? Egyptians during a campaign meeting of the main “For The Love of Egypt” coalition ahead of the parliamentary elections in the city of Qena.

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.”