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When al-Qaida in Iraq threatened to attack Christians in Egypt earlier this month, Egypt's president acted swiftly. Hosni Mubarak pledged to protect Egypt's Coptic Christians and he sent security forces to protect their churches. But that response was the exception to the rule in Egypt.

Human rights advocates say Mubarak doesn't believe in enforcing basic rights for minorities, like the Coptic Christians or women, and that these groups still experience regular discrimination, even in today's fast-advancing Egypt. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this newest story in our series on Egypt.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: In Egypt, the constitution ensures equal rights for all its citizens. But as Camellia Lutfi and her 16-year-old twin boys, Andrew and Mario Ramsis, discovered, life in Egypt rarely reflects what's written on paper.

Ms. CAMELLIA LUTFI: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: The close-knit Coptic family lives in a small apartment in the northern coastal city of Alexandria. Camellia is a tax collector who has raised the boys on her own since her husband ran off with a Muslim woman a decade ago.

Ms. LUTFI: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: He couldn't divorce Camellia under the rules of the ancient Christian sect so he converted to Islam. The result was nothing but trouble for Camellia. She quickly discovered that Egypt's Sunni Muslims, who constitute a majority of the population, receive preferential treatment, even those like her husband who convert for questionable reasons.

Ms. LUTFI: (Through translator) When I was growing up, the discrimination I faced was the kind you'd forget by the time you got home from school. Someone would tease you because you don't wear a veil. But what I'm experiencing now is pure prejudice - like going to a court that tells me I could lose custody of my children because of my religion or that my ex-husband doesn't need to pay me alimony because I'm Christian.

SARHADDI NELSON: The worst part, she adds, was what happened to her twins. After their father converted to Islam, his sons were considered Muslims as well and their birth certificates were changed to reflect that. Camellia, her high-profile lawyers, and even some top Muslim scholars, have tried to nullify these changes, but to no avail. But Andrew says he and his brother won't give up.

Mr. ANDREW RAMSIS: It's really sad. Each person has a right to choose his religion and we have chosen (unintelligible) they don't have to make us change it.

Ms. LUTFI: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: Camellia says she's written repeatedly to President Mubarak to intervene but has not heard back. She says scores of other Coptic families are struggling with similar issues. Still, she believes Mubarak has been better for Egyptian Christians than his predecessor, Anwar Sadat.

Ms. LUTFI: (Through translator) During Sadat's time, nobody would have dared to come out and say I don't want to be a Muslim. Sadat also hated our pope and had him detained at his monastery for a long time.

SARHADDI NELSON: Certainly, Mubarak projects the image of a leader who cares for all of his constituents.

President HOSNI MUBARAK (Egypt): (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: In this televised speech last month, he called for national unity between Muslims and Copts. He said he won't tolerate anyone tearing that apart, adding it was a matter of national security. But minority advocates, like Hossam Bahgat, say there's little action to back up such talk. Bahgat, who heads the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says the situation for minorities has been getting worse in recent years. He says his office has tracked roughly 52 attacks on Christians since 2008.

Mr. HOSSAM BAHGAT (Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights): The report indicates that there is an increase in the frequency as well as an expansion in the geographic scope, and in none of these cases where the perpetrators of violence prosecuted or punished.

SARHADDI NELSON: He says it's hard to get any attention focused on the issues of minorities because people are consumed by their own economic woes and political oppression.

When there is a tension, it's often the unwelcome kind from the government that is determined to retain control, says lawyer Ragia Omran, who is with the New Woman Foundation, an Egyptian advocacy group.

Ms. RAGIA OMRAN (New Woman Foundation): Women's rights, human rights, economic rights, political rights - it's the whole thing. I think anyone who's vocalizing their opinion and asking for change and asking for rights is going to be, you know, cracked down upon.

SARHADDI NELSON: But she adds that the flood of women into the workforce during Mubarak's era and help from international aid agencies have spurred some improvements in women's rights. And she says that the president's wife, Suzanne, has been an active first lady and that has also helped. Still, Omran and other activists are frustrated by what they see as token fixes by the government that don't really bring about gender equality, like a Mubarak initiative adding 64 seats exclusively for women to the new parliament that is to be elected next Sunday.

Some minority groups, like the Bedouin of the Sinai Peninsula, have grown tired for waiting for their rights and have started taking matters into their hands. Residents of Nekhel in the Sinai Desert report that armed Bedouin tribesmen came to the city last month. The show of force that frightened residents was designed to compel the government to give the Bedouin more apartments in a new public housing complex. The tribe had donated the land for the $2 million project.

Sheikh Asheesh Aniz heads a Bedouin tribe in the Sinai coastal town of Nueva(ph). He runs a retreat for backpackers at a prime slice of Red Sea coast.

Sheikh ASHEESH ANIZ: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: Aniz says the Bedouins feel marginalized. He complains the government provides his people with substandard service and education while trying to force them off their land. He opposes Bedouin who have resorted to violence, like those blamed for three bombing attacks in Sinai in 2004. But he says since then the government has eased the pressure on the Bedouin.

Sheikh ANIZ: (Through translator) They used to come and arrest us randomly and walk into our houses at any time. If you weren't there, they'd take your mother or brother instead. That doesn't happen anymore. They come, they sit, they talk, and there is more understanding and respect.

SARHADDI NELSON: He adds that in turn many Bedouin are joining the ruling party branch here in hopes of gaining wasta, or clout. Aniz, like most Egyptians, believe such connections are the only way to improve their lives.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: And you can see an audio slideshow and some exquisite pictures of how the Bedouin live in Egypt at NPR.org. And tomorrow, Egypt's president has been in power for nearly three decades, along with his political party. We'll hear what, if anything, this weekend's election will mean for Egyptians.

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