Muslim Brotherhood-Coptic relations: A dubious Rapprochement
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
"If the Muslim Brotherhood address these four issues clearly and
without any evasion, we will not have any problem with dialogue,"
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
"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.