Egypt's current social and economic problems are serious, perhaps overshadowing the mounting sectarian tensions in the country. More than anything, Copts and Muslims alike want good jobs, a proper education, decent living standards, a free media, mutual respect for religious places of worship, and, above all, a democratic regime in which power is not concentrated in the hands of a narrow elite.
Surely, it's in the collective interest of Egyptian Copts to establish a genuinely democratic system in Egypt.
At a first glance, it may seem to some Copts, especially among the clergy, that the existing non-democratic regime guarantees their protection against a sweeping Islamic extremist trend.
Like many Muslims, Copts dread the growing influence of political Islam. Copts are right to be fearful, as they are currently a marginalized group in Egypt. But political Islam is also an important part of the existing political arena. There would be no democracy if Islamists were completely excluded from the political process. How can this apparent tension be resolved?
Many people have lost faith in the slogan “Islam is the Solution”, which they feel is often manipulated for political ends. There are growing doubts that Egypt’s complex social, cultural and economic problems can be solved with such a simplistic slogan. As a result, many wonder whether the Islamists would in fact win a significant number of votes under free and fair elections.
That said, legal safeguards should be put in place so that if Islamists ever achieve a political victory they cannot override democratic principles and impose authoritarian rule.
If we look at other Islamic countries, like Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan, Morocco and Turkey, we find that mainstream Islamist parties, for the most part, have committed to constitutional principles. The same can happen in Egypt.
In the end, Islamic extremism will most likely endure only as a temporary phenomenon. Its appeal has been bolstered in the last few decades by several factors--growing socio-economic ills, the spread of Saudi-style Wahhabism across the Arab world and the absence of real democracy.
The famous Egyptian scholar Gamal Hamdan once said that religious extremism haunts Egypt like the plague whenever the state is weak or when there exists a threat from abroad. These words certainly ring true today.
Solving the current sectarian crisis requires all of our collective energies. The best way forward is through a genuine democratic transformation.