Egypt Christians rally behind rival of Islamists
CAIRO (AP) — In the small southern Egyptian town of Azaziya, where almost all the residents are Christians, few doubt that nearly everyone who can is going to vote for Ahmed Shafiq, ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister and his longtime friend, in this weekend's presidential election.
Shafiq's candidacy has dismayed many Egyptians who believe the Mubarak-era veteran will preserve the old regime's authoritarianism. But even if some Christians share those reservations, they view his opponent in the race as far worse: Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt's Christian minority fears will turn the country into an Islamic state.
"Our goal is a civil state. We don't see anyone else who can protect this except for him," Montaser Qalbek, the son of Azaziya's town leader, said of Shafiq.
In last month's first round of the presidential election, which narrowed the field from 13 candidates to two, Shafiq received nearly all of the 4,500 votes cast in Azaziya, a town in the southern province of Assiut. Qalbek said he expects more than twice that number to turn out for the Saturday-Sunday run-off and that they will again overwhelmingly back Shafiq.
That determination is likely to be mirrored across the Christian community, which makes up 10 percent of Egypt's population of 85 million. Many Christians see the vote as a clear-cut choice between a secular state and one in which an Islamist agenda slowly takes root. Leaders of the Orthodox Coptic Church, to which most Egyptian Christians belong, and Christian activists have been working hard to get the community to the polls, said Yousef Sidhom, editor of the weekly Watani newspaper and a Coptic Church official.
While they have been cautious not to use the pulpit, priests and influential congregants have been expressing support for Shafiq at church-related activities, Sidhom and other Christians said.
Those Christians who vote will back Shafiq because they are fearful of the Brotherhood's "hidden agenda," Sidhom said.
"There is a Brotherhood strategy to work toward building an Islamic country."
Sidhom says there are concerns the Brotherhood will keep Christians out of some government positions, tax non-Muslims, base education around Islam and create a foreign policy that favors Muslim over non-Muslim nations.
The Brotherhood has long insisted it won't discriminate against Christians. In his run-off campaign, Morsi has vowed Christians will have full rights equal to Muslims' and said he might appoint a Christian as one of his vice presidents.
"We don't believe this," said Sidhom. "They just want to lure people to vote for Morsi."
The campaign has already turned bitter, reflecting what could be a close race. Morsi and Shafiq each won about a quarter of the vote in the first round, with Morsi coming out ahead by a hair.
Morsi has sought to appeal to moderate and secular Muslims by drumming up fears of a continued Mubarak-style, military-backed police state if Shafiq wins.
Shafiq, a former military man like Mubarak, is stoking fear of the Brotherhood. "The Brotherhood represents darkness and secrecy," he said at his first press conference after first round results were announced . "They don't want to take us 30 years back, but all the way back to the dark ages."
The message resonates with Christians. They are already feeling insecure with the recent death of their leader, Pope Shenouda III, on top of the post-Mubarak rise of Islamists and a lapse in security across the nation, which saw a rash of sectarian violence. In a gesture of solidarity, Brotherhood leaders attended Shenouda's last Christmas service, in 2011, and in his sermon the pope said Copts and Islamists would work together for Egypt's sake. But the event did little to reduce Christians' mistrust of the group.