By SAAD EDDIN IBRAHIM
The Second International Coptic Conference, convening this week in Washington, comes amid Egypt's parliamentary elections and heightened American and international attention to the democratic advances in the Arab world's most populous country. Often overlooked is the fact that Egypt's population of nearly 75 million includes the Middle East's largest Christian minority, over seven million *, the vast majority of whom are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church and have in the last half-century experienced institutionalized discrimination that renders them little more than second-class citizens.
In an earlier era, during the three decades following the end of the First World War -- often referred to as the Arab liberal age -- Christians worked side by side with Muslims in opposition to British occupation and did, in fact, enjoy rights of citizenship that came close to that of their Muslim counterparts. They had long made important contributions in all aspects of Egyptian life -- political, economic, social and cultural. Copts were appointed governors, ministers of foreign affairs, even prime ministers.
It was, however, the dawn of authoritarianism that ended this trend. Since Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 coup, Copts have been largely excluded from the top echelons of political and administrative bodies. Only one Christian has since been appointed provincial governor, and that was for a brief period of two years in the remote governorate of North Sinai. Not one has since held a key cabinet portfolio; not one has even been appointed mayor of a city or town. Currently, Copts are sorely underrepresented in parliament, occupying only seven of 454 seats. They are also underrepresented in academia, especially state universities; despite the vast numbers of qualified and respected Coptic scholars, not one has been appointed rector of a university or dean of a college.
These examples and the periodic flare-ups of sectarian violence directed at Copts are symptomatic of the vast discrimination which they endure, as well as the general acceptance among the majority of the population that in a "Muslim state," some are more equal than others. The litany of offenses is constantly raised in the reports of international human rights organizations, the U.S. Congressional "Report on Religious Freedoms," and by the U.N. Rapporteur on Human Rights.
But nothing is as symbolic as the persistence of the Hamayonic Decree, which requires no less than a presidential permit for the building, renovation -- or even the minor repair -- of churches. Of course, no such restrictions exist on the building of mosques. This decree, the remnants of an Ottoman law and the most oppressive of any discriminatory law, is expressly intended to restrict the ability of Copts to practice their faith. It is a monument to the Copts' lowly status in Egyptian society.
The principle of equality among all citizens is a universal value. Indeed, it is explicitly enunciated in Articles 8 and 46 of the long-ignored Egyptian Constitution. However, there can be no genuine hope for true democracy, civil liberties or the abatement of deeply entrenched religious discrimination in Egypt as long as the Hamayonic Decree stands in flagrant violation of the constitution and human rights. It would take no more than the stroke of a pen for President Hosni Mubarak to strike it down. The day that is done, discrimination against Copts will have been dealt a crushing blow, the effect of which will, no doubt, resonate positively for the democratic status of Copts and Muslims alike.
I propose a simple plan to encourage the Egyptian regime to take action. The West's piqued interest in fostering democratic values within the society of its Egyptian ally should be capitalized upon, and Western diplomats should repeatedly ask their Egyptian counterparts one simple question: Why don't you strike down this decree and treat churches as you treat mosques?
No excuses alluding to the alleged preparation by the government of a unified code should be tolerated, nor should the false claim that all requests for the building of churches are routinely approved. Others who decry the repeal of this decree, stating its potential to rend the Egyptian "national unity," would recklessly ignore the fact that the national unity they claim to cherish can be firmly forged only on the basis of true equality among all citizens.
The Coptic Conference in Washington is titled "Democracy in Egypt for Muslims and Christians." Full citizenship rights for all Egyptians, regardless of their creed, is a necessary step if Egypt's long-overdue democratization is to be realized -- a step which cannot be made while the Hamayonic Decree remains intact.
Mr. Ibrahim is an Egyptian pro-democracy activist
* Please note that Mr. Ibrahim said the Coptic population is over 7 million, which is the government estimates, but the church estimate the number to be a little over 12 million Coptic Christians in Egypt in addition to the expatriate Copts.