How Will the New Coptic Pope Deal with the New Islamist Egypt?

The 117th successor of Saint Mark is not expected to rock relations with the government. But he may have to

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Nasser Nasser / AP

Egyptian Copts walk past posters with pictures of the three papal candidates following the papal-selection ceremony at the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo on Nov. 4, 2012. Bishop Tawadros, pictured in the center poster, was the new Pope

Updated: Nov. 6, 2012

Transparency on any level has never really been a modern Egyptian strongpoint. Crucial transitional moments — like Hosni Mubarak’s ouster or President Mohamed Morsy outmaneuvering his rival, the Defense Minister who was also head of the military junta, in August — tend to happen behind closed doors. The public generally finds out who the new boss is via opaque communiqué.

So the leadership of Egypt’s Coptic Church gets marks for conducting a truly transparent papal-selection process — literally and physically transparent. On Sunday morning, following a lengthy and lavish special Mass, the names of the remaining three candidates were written on pieces of paper. Each was folded and sealed inside a clear glass ball.

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Then a blindfolded boy picked one the three balls from a bowl lotto-style, revealing that an unassuming rural bishop named Tawadros was the church’s new pontiff. Every step of the process took place out in the open in front of a packed cathedral and broadcast live on state television.

But Egyptians are a conspiracy-loving community, and despite even these extraordinary steps, by Sunday evening videos of the ceremony were being e-mailed around the country with Zapruder-style scrutiny and hints that the fix was somehow in the process.

Nevertheless, stewardship of one of the Middle East’s largest Christian communities now falls to Bishop Tawadros, who was a pharmacist before he took his clerical vows and serving for years in the rural Nile Delta province of Beheira. Tawadros, who turned 60 on Sunday, faces the daunting task of following the iconic Pope Shenouda III — who reigned for more than 40 years until his death in March.

Shenouda’s ultimate legacy is probably twofold. He made it nearly impossible for Coptic married couples to divorce within the church; and he made a strategic decision to ally his church with Mubarak’s government as a means of assuring his community’s safety. That last stance often led Shenouda into embarrassing situations like repeated public endorsements of Mubarak — including one in the midst of the 2011 revolution that ended Mubarak’s reign.

Under Shenouda, the Coptic Church struck a common Middle Eastern bargain: the religious or ethnic minority allies itself with an authoritarian ruler as protection against the Muslim majority. But in Egypt and elsewhere, that bargain is now obsolete. Secularist dictators like Mubarak have been replaced and Christian communities must fend for themselves — often with elected Islamist governments. With Morsy, a lifelong Muslim Brotherhood official, occupying the presidential palace and a new constitution being drafted by a council dominated by Islamists, one of Tawadros’ first challenges will be managing this redefined relationship between church and state.

Before the revolution, a younger generation of politicized Copts had long since stopped expecting political courage or leadership from the church. They regarded Shenouda’s policies as far too conciliatory — desperately dedicated to staying on the good side of the Mubarak government, no matter what the cost was.

Tawadros may surprise them. At first, he mostly kept his public statements innocuous. In the wake of his selection, he spoke to reporters about wanting to first focus on internal church issues, or as he put it, “organizing the house from the inside.” But if Egyptians expected Tawadros to withdraw the church from politics, those expectations were immediately disproven as the new pope wasted no time inserting himself directly into Egypt’s constitutional debate.  In a series of interviews, he flatly warned that a draft constitution which titled too heavily toward Islamic law would be strongly and publicly resisted. “The constitution is for us all to live together, a common life, we need each other. This is the constitution that will bring us together,” he told the popular satellite channel ONTV. “Any additions or hints that make the constitution religious will not be acceptable, not only to Copts but to many sectors in society.”

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Tawadros’ comparative obscurity had bred a host of questions as to his policies and political persona going forward. “People know very little about him,” said Kees Hulsman, a Dutch sociologist who has studied the inner workings of the Coptic Church for 30 years. “He has almost no public profile outside of Beheira.” Church watchers believe that kind of low profile was exactly what Coptic elders wanted in the new Pope.

Indeed, just because his final selection was indisputably transparent, if random, it doesn’t mean the process wasn’t partially politicized. With Coptic papal selections, the closed-door politics is front-loaded. An original list of 17 candidates was reduced to five by a nontransparent committee of church elders. Analysts describe that initial vetting as proof that the church — in the wake of Shenouda’s reign — deliberately sought to influence the process by allowing only low-key and noncontroversial candidates through to the later rounds. “There was a certain type of person that they obviously wanted,” Hulsman said of the five semifinal candidates. “These were all people with low public profiles — people who were not known for making strong statements on major issues.”

One such vetting casualty may have been Bishop Bishoy, a high-profile and outspoken figure who was widely regarded for years as a strong candidate to succeed Shenouda. He and other more famous clergymen didn’t make the second round. The five remaining candidates were narrowed down to three last month by a public vote among more than 2,000 church officials and senior laypeople — leading to Sunday’s final “altar lot” selection ceremony.

Loosely estimated as comprising 10% of Egypt’s 84 million–strong population, Egypt’s Coptic Church traces its history there back to long before the emergence of Islam, with St. Mark regarded as their first Pope. Now Tawadros assumes the mantle as the church’s 118th leader. He inherits stewardship of an increasingly anxious congregation that feared violence and social marginalization even before the revolution and more so now.

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.

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