Religious freedom for Christians in Egypt (Copts) and other religious minorities hangs in the balance as Egyptian voters prepare to select a new president starting May 23. This is the first open presidential election in a generation. If voters favor a hardline Islamist as president, existing religious freedoms are at greater risk. At least one moderate candidate favors less state involvement in religion.
Right now, the two major contenders for the presidency are Amr Moussa, belonging to the old guard around former president Hosni Mubarak, and Abdel-Moneim Abol Fotoh, an Islamist with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. Until mid-2011, Moussa was Secretary-General of the Arab League and is widely recognized as an establishment figure. His hardline criticism of Israel has proven to be popular in Egypt.
Abol Fotoh, a political moderate, quit the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011 after decades of involvement in order to run for president. In the late 1990s, he spent five years in prison for his political activism.
In the past week, popular resentment in Egypt exploded when the Election Commission disqualified 10 candidates, including three well-known and controversial figures: Khairat al-Shater (Freedom Justice Party, Muslim Brotherhood); Omar Suleiman (former vice president and spy chief under Mubarak); and Hazem Abu-Ismail (an ultra-conservative Salafist). This week, Shater alleged that the commission's move was an attempt the rig the election.
During the Egyptian parliamentary elections, 75 percent of voters voted for an Islamist party, indicating enormous popular support for religiously conservative candidates. Since Moussa may have the backing of Egypt's military but is certainly no Islamist, it is quite possible that Egypt's next president will have an Islamist background.
Among the Islamist candidates, Abol Fotoh is more openly seeking support of moderates—both Muslims and Christians. He agreed to an interview with Christianity Today to explain his point of view on Muslim-Christian relations, the primary place of Islam in governing Egypt, the role of the new president, and relations with the United States and Israel.
"The president of Egypt needs to be religious," Abol Fotoh told CT. "Egyptians, Christians and Muslims, are a religious people. They love religion. We do not have extremist secularism in Egypt as there is in Tunisia or Turkey, which is why people cannot imagine a secular president would rule Egypt.
"The president needs to protect citizenship with honesty and righteousness," he said. "[Egypt needs] justice with the presence of a real independent judiciary." (During the days of Mubarak, many criticized the justice system as politicized and corrupt.)
As do other candidates, Abol Fotoh supports the controversial Article 2 of Egypt's constitution. This article establishes Islam as the state religion, Arabic as the national language, and Shari'ah (the Islamic legal code) as the principal source for legislation. "Article 2 does not contradict with freedom of belief," he said. "Legislation is done under the observance of the Constitutional Court. The role of clerics—Christian and Muslim—is only to advise and give opinions and not to dominate, legislate, or monitor the legislation."
Many of the tensions between Muslims and Christians, Abol Fotoh believes, are over conversions from one religion to the other and construction of new church buildings. He said that changing religion is "a personal right" and that religious groups and state should refrain from seeking to supervise religious conversion.