Cairo: In December 2012, Violet Ishaq, a Christian medical student, boycotted vote on a draft constitution drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly loyal to the then president Mohammad Mursi.
Ishaq changed her mind on Tuesday, the first day of a referendum on a proposed constitution backed by the military who deposed Mursi six months ago.
“Mursi’s constitution treated us as a minority and gave Islamists a free hand,” said Ishaq, 23, as she was waiting to cast her ballot at a polling station in the mainly Christian area of Shubra in northern Cairo. “This time the situation is completely different. I feel that Egypt is now my homeland and the army is the protective shield of all Egyptians without discrimination.”
Ishaq is one of Egypt’s Christian community members, who have overwhelmingly supported the military’s overthrow of Mursi in July — a year after he had taken office.
Christians, who account for around 10 per cent of Egypt’s predominantly Muslim 85 million population, long complained about alleged discrimination in holding senior state posts and attacks by hardline Islamists. Their fears increased after Mursi won in Egypt’s first free democratic presidential elections.
Christians and their churches felt the backlash of Mursi’s overthrow. Dozens of churches and properties owned by Copts were attacked in August last year when security forces forcibly cleared out pro-Mursi protest camps in Cairo. The military-installed government blamed the attacks on Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood and later branded it a terrorist group.
“We are here to participate in making the future of our country future,” said Sister Maria, a nun, as she stood in the long queue at a school turned into a polling station in Shubra. “As you see, we are not intimidated by threats of those who don’t want this country to move forward. Our army protects us all,” she added, while dozens of military soldiers in riot gear were deployed to secure the place.
Shubra, which has around 22 churches, is often cited by Egyptian intellectuals as an epitome of Christian-Muslim harmony before Islamist militancy started to appear in the country in the 1970s.
Pope Tawadross II, the top Coptic cleric, has backed the military’s overthrow of Mursi and urged Christians to cast in favour of the proposed constitution.
“I’m here not only to say yes to the constitution, but also to say yes to Gen. Al Sissi,” said Malak Hana, a Christian schoolteacher, referring to Abdel Fattah Al Sissi, the defence minister who led Mursi’s removal. “Al Sissi is the most suitable person that Egypt needs to stand on its feet after all this chaos caused by the Brotherhood,” added Hana, as other voters made a victory sign.
Earlier this week, Al Sissi signaled intention to stand for president, calling on Egyptians to turn out in large numbers on the two days of the referendum to “fascinate the world”.
The vote on the constitution is the first major step in a military-backed transitional blueprint that also provides for presidential and parliamentary elections due later this year.
Very few Christians remain apprehensive, though. Meena Shukri, a self-styled Coptic activist, is one of them.
“The new constitution continues to allow the military trial of civilians. It also enhances the military’s standing and makes it a state within the state. This is not the best way to turn to democracy,” he said. “Therefore, I’d say no to the constitution,” Shukri added, drawing vociferous objections from other voters.