Muslim Brotherhood-Coptic relations: A dubious Rapprochement

Noha El-Hennawy

As the Muslim Brotherhood begins its life as an official political player, it is attempting to revamp its image to appeal to all Egyptians, particularly the Coptic Christian minority that has long been skeptical of the Islamist group. But Coptic leaders say it will take more than public relations to quell fears of sectarianism.

“The Muslim Brotherhood want to show that they are not against Copts and attract some Christians to join their party,” said Naguib Gobraiel, lawyer for the Coptic Church. “Eventually, they want to delude people and make them think that their paradigm is not fundamentalist but conforms with the values of citizenship.”

The Brotherhood is using its website to attempt to building bridges with Copts. Earlier this week, it featured archival and recent pictures of its members visiting churches. On Saturday, the site ran an article addressing Coptic concerns.

In mid-March, the Brotherhood called for dialogue with Christians, who constitute about 10 percent of Egypt’s population. Yet the call was rejected by the Church and many Coptic public figures, who dismissed it as a political maneuver rather than a genuine change in the group’s values.

Gobraiel, speaking on behalf of the Church, said that no dialogue can be held until the Brotherhood meets four conditions: acknowledging that Copts have the right to run for president; recognizing that Copts and Muslims are equal citizens; accepting that a woman could become president; and apologizing for a statement made by the Brotherhood’s former supreme guide in which he implied that the group would prefer to be ruled by a non-Egyptian Muslim rather than a non-Muslim national.

“If the Muslim Brotherhood address these four issues clearly and without any evasion, we will not have any problem with dialogue,” said Gobraiel.

But Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian said the Church welcomed the initiative but declined to take part in an explicitly political dialogue.

“The dialogue is going on at different levels but not with the Church,” said El-Erian. He refused to provide details on which Christian groups the Brotherhood is meeting, saying privacy is necessary for their success.

“Youths and elites from both sides sit together and there is a series of amicable visits to Copts in different provinces,” El-Erian added.

Sami Ermia, head of the General Authority for Christian Youth Associations, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that a group of young Copts and a well-known Brotherhood leader, who asked not to be named, asked him to host the dialogue. Ermia said his NGO will only do that if the meeting takes place under the slogan “Justice for all Egyptians.” The Brotherhood has not yet responded, he said.

Gobraiel refuted El-Erian’s claims about Coptic-Brotherhood dialogue.

“What is going on are some individual talks, and the Muslim Brotherhood has participated in the opening of some Coptic service centers, but this does not mean any kind of official dialogue,” he said.

Shortly after former President Hosni Mubarak resigned on 11 February, the Brotherhood announced it would form an Islamic-leaning civil political party. This reignited an old debate that started when the group released its first draft of a party platform in 2007. The platform shocked Egypt’s Christian and secular communities by calling for clerical rule and arguing that women and Copts could not run for president.

Most of the contentious clauses have been amended, said Gamal Heshmat, a Brotherhood leader. The final wording will be announced when the group officially unveils its platform.

“It is normal to have people listen to us rather than hear about us,” said Heshmat. “The call for a dialogue is a message that aims at diffusing all media-orchestrated fears from the group.”

However, Heshmat was clear that the four conditions outlined by Gobraiel are “not acceptable.”

“No party should take a condescending position and dictate a set of conditions on the other,” he said. “This would not be a dialogue.”

Besides amending clauses that discriminate against Copts, some Brotherhood leaders went further, saying Christians can join the ranks of the group’s “Freedom and Justice” party.

The well-established Coptic columnist Karima Kamal shrugged off this invitation as a “joke.”

“How can you invite Copts to a party that is based on an Islamic frame of reference?” wondered Kamal. “This is an explicit attempt to make a fool out of the other. The same applies to Copts who want to make sectarian parties and say they will let Muslims join in.”

Kamal says that the calls for dialogue with Copts are less about substance and more about improving the Brotherhood’s image with secular and liberal forces.

Trust in the Brotherhood fell due to its vocal support for a “yes” vote in the recent constitutional referendum. The referendum created unprecedented polarization between Islamists and secularists: the Brotherhood, Salafis and radical Islamic groups supported the army-backed amendments, while the Coptic Church and most liberal and secularist groups called for an entirely new Constitution. In the end, more than 77 percent of voters favored the amendments.

In many mosques across Egypt, clerics claimed that a “yes” vote was a religious obligation, while certain radical Muslim leaders said Copts would vote “no” in order to topple the old Constitution, which recognizes Islamic law as the primary source of legislation. While there is no clear evidence that the Brotherhood was behind these sermons, their posters calling for a “yes” vote were circulated outside mosques nationwide.

“The performance of the Muslim Brotherhood in the lead-up to the referendum aroused Coptic fears,” said Kamal. “There is a lack of trust in the Brotherhood and a general feeling that the group is being politically opportunistic.”

The amendments are believed to serve the Brotherhood’ s political interests. The changes pave the way for early parliamentary elections, in which the Brotherhood is expected to achieve large gains by virtue of being the most organized political faction.

“The Muslim Brotherhood does not only need to gain credibility in the eyes of Copts but in the eyes of the whole Egyptian society,” said Kamal Zakher, a Coptic writer and activist.

He feels that the call to hold dialogue with Christians bears sectarians undertones.

“Why are they calling for a dialogue for Copts? Why do not they call it a dialogue with the Egyptian street that will include all Egyptians?” he said.

“There is nothing called a Coptic bloc; we are Egyptian citizens and we practice politics from a citizenship perspective,” said Zakher.