Egypt's Religious Minorities Want Role In New Constitution

In Egypt, religious minorities are embracing the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Attacks on Coptic Christians and Shiite Muslims escalated during his year in office. But the military, which installed the interim government, has had a checkered reputation of its own, killing and imprisoning minorities during past rule.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. There is growing discord in Egypt among those who backed the military's removal of the country's elected Islamist president. At the heart of the divide is Egypt's controversial constitution. The document, which is heavily influenced by Islamic law, was written by allies of former President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from which he hails.

Many Egyptians, especially those belonging to religious minorities, want the document thrown out and a new one drafted with their input. But, as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Cairo, there are signs the interim president will do what Egyptian leaders have often done, shut them out.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Mary Daniall argues with a friend over who gets to pay at a cafe where they are taking a break from a victory rally in Tahrir Square. Even as they squabble, the Coptic Christian women can't stop smiling.

MARY DANIALL: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Daniall says it's because the ouster of their Islamist president and crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood have lifted a tremendous weight off of their community. But she admits to having mixed feelings about the Egyptian military being their savior. Daniall foresees having to take to the streets again to protest for her rights. She adds her family still wants justice for her 20-year-old brother, Nino(ph), who was killed by soldiers not far from Tahrir Square.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

NELSON: He was one of 27 people shot or run over in a brutal military crackdown of a protest outside the state TV building in October 2011, an attack captured in this online video. Most of the victims were Coptic Christians protesting the demolition of a church in upper Egypt. Across town, Bahaa Anwar Mohammed is also conflicted. This spokesman for Egypt's Shiite Muslims also strongly supports the ouster of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

BAHAA ANWAR MOHAMMED: We gave them a chance for one year and they failed.

NELSON: He says Shiites, who are considered infidels by more radical elements of Egypt's Sunni Muslim majority, were disparaged by Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and their ultra-conservative Salafist allies. He blames their fiery rhetoric for spurring attacks on Shiite leaders like Sheik Hassan Shehata, who, in June, was dragged by a mob from his home in a village near Cairo and killed, along with three other Shiites.

But Mohammed says he doesn't trust the Egyptian generals who carried out the coup, either.

MOHAMMED: I think the army is protecting us, but I hope the army don't play with us.

NELSON: He recalls that the military-backed regime of Hosni Mubarak was hard on Shiites. That was less for religious reasons than political ones. Mohammed says the government wrongly assumed Egyptian Shiites supported the Shiite regime in Iran.

MOHAMMED: The government treated us very badly, especially they tried to block us economically. If you declare that you are Shiite, you get fired of your job.

NELSON: Ahmed Samih, who heads the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies in Cairo, says religious minorities in Egypt who are often discriminated against or attacked are understandably worried about their future under the military-backed government. He says the new interim president set off alarm bells this week when he announced he would only seek amendments to the Islamist-drafted constitution.

Analysts say that's likely an attempt to protect the military's power and economic interests and to appease the Salafist Al-Nur Party. They say the military wants to keep the one-time ally of Morsi in its camp.

AHMED SAMIH: It's divide and rule concept, so they had to accept the Salafist agenda over the table. An interpretation, but I can see (unintelligible) exactly the right thing to do.

NELSON: Sami says that leaving this constitution in place means the discrimination Egyptian religious minorities face would remain legal. Shiite spokesman Mohammed says that's something he's determined to prevent. He says he formally asked the interim government to include Shiites on the team that will revisit the constitution in the coming months.

SAMIH: If they want to change the country for the good, I think they will - they should do it.

NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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