Egypt Copt
A Coptic priest queues to vote outside a polling station in the Shubra neighborhood of Cairo. Reuters

Egypt's Coptic Christian minority has as much at stake in Egypt's first free presidential elections as the rest of the nation, if not more. The vote, the first round of which is taking place this week, could determine whether they are welcomed into the societal fold or left isolated on the margins, segregated in a way that they weren't under former despot Hosni Mubarak.

Those possibilities are the extremes, but with negligible representation in national politics, the Copts will be taking extra care when filling out their ballots.

There's a vacuum of leadership right now in Egypt, explained Father Michael Sorial of the St. Mary and St. Antonius Coptic Orthodox Church in Queens, New York.

There's great deal of instability. Having that leader, someone people can look to and who can provide direction for the country, will begin to restore stability in Egypt and in the region. It will allow Egypt to be a safe haven once again.

With some six million registered voters in a close election, the Copts could influence which candidates make it to a June 16 run-off vote. But despite being Egypt's largest religious minority, making up about 10 percent of the country's 80 million people, the Copts have been largely ignored by most of the presidential hopefuls.

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, an independent and socially progressive candidate, and a current front-runner, is one of the few who has risked losing popularity among Egypt's Muslim majority by publicly supporting the Coptic community. During one campaign speech he even said that if he won, he could appoint a woman or a Copt as vice president based on competence, and not for propaganda purposes, adding that Copts are part of Egypt ... like us [Muslims].

But Fotouh is an Islamist, and his past relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood makes him difficult to characterize; many Copts list him as their first choice, and Fotouh even has Christians working for his campaign. But many others have trouble getting past an endorsement from the devout Salafist Al-Nour Party, which has suggested that Christians should have their own set of laws.

I would not be surprised if some younger Christians voted for Abdul Moneim Aboul Fetouh, recognizing that they do live in a heavily Islamic country and that it is better to engage that world than to isolate themselves within it, said Zack Gold, a Washington-based Middle East expert who focused on Egyptian politics at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis.

The Coptic Church has not and will not formally endorse any one candidate, nor did they try to run their own. Instead, the church's interim leader, Metropolitan Bakhomious of Behera, decreed that each individual member of the Coptic community should vote for whomever he or she feels is best for Egypt. It's not about supporting a person, but supporting the democracy and getting Copts involved in the process.

During the Mubarak regime, the only voice the Copts were allowed to have was inside the church, Sorial said.

The voices were silenced in the past, and Copts didn't want to be involved in the process before because they weren't welcomed. Now, we (Church leaders) are encouraging them to be active participants in the civil process and in civil society rather than isolating themselves.

Some local church leaders are trying to steer their flocks toward certain choices. In Sol, a village about 50 miles of Cairo where Muslims set fire to the local church last March, the Coptic community plans to vote as a bloc, according to Ahram Online.

Led by Sameh Youssef, Sol's Copts were deciding as late as Tuesday between Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, two Mubarak-era ministers who have proved to be polarizing for many Egyptians because of their links to the old regime.

Any of the Islamist candidates winning would be bad news for us. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is the best of a bad bunch. But (Brotherhood candidate) Mohammed Mursi or Salim Al Awa would be a disaster, Youssef told the Egyptian Daily.

Certainly, those Christians who are most afraid of what could befall them in an Islamic state seem to be backing Shafiq, said Gold.

On Wednesday and Thursday, Copts will be weighing the potential danger of an Islamist candidate against that of continued military rule. Like the rest of the country, the Copts are invested in bringing civilian rule to Egypt as soon as possible, but the Christians have suffered more since the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) took over than the average Egyptian has.

Since taking control of the country after Mubarak's resignation, the SCAF have been accused of not doing enough to protect the Copts or other Egyptian minorities. The most blatant example was when a Coptic protest in Cairo turned into a deadly riot last October, but there were also widespread cases of individual violence against Copts, vandalism of churches and unequal treatment.

This has caused an estimated 100,000 Copts to flee a post-revolution Egypt for the United States, finding refuge in Coptic communities and churches across the country, where they have stayed involved in the political process by casting absentee ballots.

And for some, the results of this week's vote and next month's run-off, may determine when, or if, they go back to Egypt at all.