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Coptic Christians attend a service in Cairo on Oct. 12, 2011, to mourn those killed during recent clashes with Egyptian security forces. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)
Coptic Christians attend a service in Cairo on Oct. 12, 2011, to mourn those killed during recent clashes with Egyptian security forces. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)

Egypt's Christians fear the worst as Islamists poised to win presidential election Add to ...

The Christians of Upper Egypt are sure about two things: First, they really like democracy – the new-found sense that everyone is considered equal (Muslim and Christian, men and women), and second, the prospect of what Wednesday and Thursday's democratic choice for president may turn out to be scares the devil out of them!

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Stepping off the train in nearby Deirut, a Nile Valley agricultural and market centre 400 kilometres south of Cairo, it stares you in the face: The posters of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate for president are the only ones you see.

Further on, hanging over the market mayhem, there are other banners: some for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the independent Islamist candidate, and a scattering of others, but Morsi is the dominant face and name.

“The Brotherhood organization is very impressive,” said Soad Othman, a Deirut lawyer and organizer for Dr. Aboul Fotouh, the candidate with the second best organization in the area. “We expect them to have a big presence at every polling station [Wednesday]”

Election rules prohibit campaigners from talking to voters at polling stations, but no one expects that regulation to be observed.

“The trouble is,” said Ms. Othman, “at least half the electorate are illiterate in this area. That means they have to go by the symbols [that identify each candidate]when they vote.”

(Mr. Morsi's symbol is the scales of justice; Dr. Aboul Fotouh's is a horse, former prime minister Ahmed Shafik's is a ladder etc.)

A common practice at the parliamentary elections in January, explained Tareq, a teacher and election monitor, was for Brotherhood people to ask voters who they wanted to vote for, then, regardless of their preference, tell the voter to pick the scales of justice.

People here expect a lot more of that in the Wednesday and Thursday votes for president.

The outcome of the vote here, and across the country, is likely going to be the election of an Islamist president -- either Mr. Morsi or Dr. Aboul Fotouh.

And that doesn't sit well with Christians in these parts.

The district, a mix of Christian and Muslim villages and towns, with church steeples competing with minarets for prominence, is hypersensitive.

Less than 20 years ago, extremists from some of the Muslim communities, under the banner of the Gamaa Islamiya, carried out terror attacks against area Christians and their institutions.

“Just half an hour from here, 19 were killed in one attack in 1993,” recalled Eva Kerolous, who was mayor of this predominantly Christian town of Komboha in 2009 and 2010. “It was awful.”

Ms. Kerolous, who was the one and only woman ever elected mayor of any municipality in Egypt, says she doesn't expect an Islamist president, coupled with an Islamist parliament, to lead to such terror attacks again. But she does fear that the treatment of women, for whom she has worked so hard, will be “to push them to the margins of society -- to cover them up and ignore them.”

Driving through the neat winding streets of this community you see a cross painted over almost every door. And you also find not a single election poster.

About 98 per cent of Komboha is Christian, explains Ms. Kerolous, and almost 100 per cent of them are voting for Ahmed Shafik, an unrepentant holdover from the Mubarak regime, who did an admirable job as minister for civil aviation, and as air force chief before that.

Other Christian communities in the area are voting the same way, she says, in a last-ditch effort to give someone enough votes to get in a runoff with one of the Muslim candidates.

Indeed, national polls, as unreliable as they are, do show a recent growth in support for Mr. Shafik, who also served as Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister. The move to Mr. Shafik would seem to be from people who are suddenly afraid to step off the cliff into the unknown of an Islamist leadership -- better the kind of devil they know, many reason, and they return to a stalwart of the old regime.

The trouble is, Christians represent only 10 per cent of Egypt's population of about 80 million souls, and about 10 per cent of the electorate of about 50 million.

Even if all of these voters cast ballots for the same candidate, and if all the secular and liberal Muslims join them, they're only going to constitute about 30 per cent of the total vote. That's well short of the 50 per cent plus one that's needed to become president and probably short of getting one of the top two spots that will face a run-off election in June.

The problem for them is that fully 70 per cent of the population are observant Muslims.

With three major candidates vying for the secular 30 per cent, and two major candidates fighting for the Islamist 70 per cent, the numbers seem clear: It could well be an all Islamist runoff election.

And that's Ms. Kerolous's greatest nightmare.

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