Fears are gripping Egyptians that the country’s new constitution might be too accommodating of Islamist demands at the expense of the seculars—among whom are the Copts. Compounding the fears are doubts that a ‘no’ vote to the constitution might not lead to another rewriting, but may mean that Egypt goes back to the 2012 Islamist constitution—after all, the ‘new’ constitution is not ‘new’ in the literal sense; it is an all-out amendment of the 2012 constitution.
It is no secret that Egypt is today deeply polarised between its seculars who call for a civic State and the Islamists who desire a State ruled by political Islam. And with Egypt in the process of writing a new constitution; the outlooks, aspirations, and interests of the various sectors of the Egyptian community are translating into a tug-of-war between their representatives in the Committee of Fifty which is currently finalising the draft constitution. It comes as no surprise then that where the seculars and Islamists are concerned the tug-of-war appears to have turned into a veritable conflict.
At the expense of the Copts
The Copts, predictably among those who call for a civic State, were bound to be in the middle of the fray. The three major Churches in Egypt; the Coptic Orthodox, Coptic Catholic, and Evangelical; are represented in the Committee of the Fifty; as is also the Salafi Nour Party. The seculars in the committee are a wide majority, which properly translates the situation on the ground in Egypt since the overthrow of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime last July by massive public protest and military support. It was thought then that the new constitution would reflect the desire of the majority of Egyptians for a civic State. For all appearances, however, this is increasingly coming into question.
A recent letter sent to the chairman of the Committee of the Fifty Amr Moussa by the representative of the Orthodox Church in the committee Anba Pola, and publicly approved by the two other Church representatives, had the effect of a bombshell. It validated suspicions that had been lurking on the sidelines that the seculars were on a collision path with the Islamists. But worse, it confirmed fears that the genuine attempt at a consensual constitution that included the Islamists would come at the expense of the Copts.
Appeasing the Islamists
Anba Pola’s letter, leaked to the press last Sunday, says it all. The Bishop began with the usual courtesies, praising Mr Moussa for his self-giving, wise, patriotic management of the Committee of the Fifty, and citing his initial pride at serving as a committee member. “Deep disillusionment, however,” Anba Pola wrote, “set in once I realised that a specific faction [the Salafi al-Nour] was being blatantly favoured over another faction whose members endured countless hardships for decades and especially after the 30 June revolution, namely the Copts.” He said he felt compelled to take the issue to the media and the Coptic community.
Taking the matter into further detail, Anba Pola explained that when the committee started its work, a bylaw was issued confirming the importance of consensus in writing the articles of the draft constitution; where consensus failed, the matter would be put to a vote. This rule governed activities of the committee and subcommittees.
“The draft constitution preliminarily worked out by the 10-member expert committee which preceded us was to be the main reference upon which our committee was to base its work, not the 2012 [Islamist] constitution.”
Adhering to the above rules, the 14-member subcommittee charged with drafting the Fundamental Bases of the State started its work and agreed to a number of amendments. Anba Pola explained that it was decided, in a 10 to 3 vote, that the term “civil” would be inserted in Article One in order for it to read: “The Arab Republic of Egypt is a civil sovereign State.” The vote represented the secular voices against the Salafis and al-Azhar representatives.
Article 3 which stipulated that Christians and Jews are entitled to family laws according to their own doctrines which would also apply to their choice of religious leaders, was voted to include a substitution of “non-Muslims” for “Christians and Jews”. The vote was 10 to 4, again expressing the seculars against al-Azhar and the Salafis. [Al-Azhar objected to the amendment on grounds that it would open the door to such sects as the Shia and Baha’is whom al-Azhar considers objectionable].
The rapporteur of the sub-committee, who was the al-Azhar representative, attempted to include a clause that would entitle al-Azhar to the authority of the official interpretation of sharia articles, an article which had been included in the 2012 constitution but was removed in the version drafted by the 10-member expert committee. A 10 to 3 vote decided not to include this clause in any way. [The reason cited in the press was that al-Azhar, as a venerable religious and educational institution, should be kept out of politics.]
The articles were referred to the Phrasing sub-committee, according to the voting results. “But we were in for a surprise,” Anba Pola wrote.” The representatives of al-Azhar came up in the media to announce their rejection of the decisions of the committee. For the sake of Egypt’s unity, we sought to reach a compromise between the two sides. At this point I must note my appreciation of the huge effort and patience exerted by both you and your deputy, the lawyer Mona Zulfiqar, to reach a compromise. For several weeks you negotiated with both sides; we waited for the results of these talks.
“On the evening of Friday 1 November the Phrasing Committee issued its final version of the articles in question. We were stunned to find out that they had been drafted according to the Islamists’ demands, in total disregard of the majority vote. We were being put before a status quo, a fait accompli.”
The term “civil” was deleted from Article 1; Article 3 included “Christians and Jews” instead of “Non-Muslims”; and a clause concerning al-Azhar was added.
“We were also amazed,” Anba Pola wrote, “at a request to rewrite Article 2 which stipulates that Islam is the State religion, Arabic its language, and Islamic sharia the main source of legislation; to include an interpretation of the term sharia, or append the Article 219 which offered such an interpretation in the 2012 constitution and which had been deleted by the 10-expert panel. The Mufti (one entitled to issue fatwa, Islamic legal edict,) of Egypt was among those insisting on this amendment.
The notorious article
At this point it must be explained that, prior to the 2012 constitution, it was the role of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) to ensure that all legislation met the conditions of sharia, as stipulated Article 2. The SCC adhered to the historically proved, unambiguous interpretations. When the Islamist 2012 constitution was written, this role was taken from the SCC and given to al-Azhar, and a definition of sharia was cited in Article 219 of the constitution. This definition broadened the scope of sharia to include the wider interpretations by Islamic scholars, most of which offer overly strict versions of Islam and are in conflict among themselves.
On Sunday 3 November, during a session of the Fundamental Bases of the State Committee to discuss the highly sensitive “identity articles”, the rapporteur hastily reviewed the articles and endorsed the version favoured by the Islamists, disregarding the opposition expressed by the Church. “That day, Anba Pola wrote, “we were flagrantly deprived of the right to voice our opposition. I considered walking out but decided it would make no difference whatsoever; I could see very clearly that some decision had been taken to impose the will of the Salafis to the Egyptian Constitution.”
On 5 November, news were leaked that the representatives of al-Azhar and the Salafis had approved a phrasing of the Article 219, and that it would be included in the Preamble to the Constitution. Again, the decision to appease the Islamists was all too obvious.”
“I spent the entire night,” Anba Pola wrote, “studying rulings by the SCC for its interpretation of the second article concerning the term “Principles of Islamic Sharia”. I found many rulings, issued between 1993 and 2004 by different judges, all confirming that no legislative text may contradict the provisions of Islamic sharia, those which are categorically proved, positively unambiguous and offer unalloyed implications, thus eliminating all cause for conflict.
“Dear Sir, the text proposed to be added in the Preamble will lead to treating Christians as second-class citizens because they are considered infidels and should be treated as such by the law.
The text in question opens the door for interpretations that follow Islamic writings such as the series of Fiqh al-Sunna (Sunna Jurisprudence) by Sheikh al-Sayed Sabeq, published by Dar al-Fath, indicate that the testimony of Christians in courts of law should be rejected (Page 380, Volume 3). In defamation and libel cases (accusation of adultery or defaming people’s honour), Islam sentences the guilty to 80 lashes if the one libelled is Muslim (Page 535, Volume 2); sharia provides no sentence for libelling Christians.
The diyyah (blood money) paid for the manslaughter of a Christian man is worth half the diyyah of a Muslim, and that of a Coptic woman is half that of a Muslim woman (Page 60 and 61, Volume 3)
The sentence for willful murder in Islam is execution of the murderer provided the victim is Muslim (Page 25, Volume 2), implying there is no sentence for murdering a Christian.”
Anba Pola concluded his letter by demanding the full removal of any “interpretation of sharia from the constitution in its entirety.”
Last Tuesday, Mr Moussa stressed to a five-member delegation of Coptic activists who met him that that interpretation of sharia will be the responsibility of the SCC alone. However, it remains to be seen how his words would translate in the constitutional texts drafted.
Alien to the spirit of the constitution
With the Islamist voice clearly finding response in the attempt at inclusion in the Committee of the Fifty, the question which begs an answer is why do the seculars in the committee appear to be so accommodating of Islamist demands, even at the expense of basic secular tenets.
Watani took the entire issue to a number of secular figures.
Khaled al-Balshi, member of the board of the Journalists Syndicate, was positively grumpy as we discussed the issue. “The article defining Islamic sharia which the Salafis are intent on ramming into the constitution,” he said, “is alien to the very spirit of the constitution. It blatantly roots sectarian notions, meaning it contradicts the basic constitutional concept of non-discrimination. Constitutions are written with the outlook of indiscriminately rooting equality between citizens; the draft constitution now in the writing unequivocally stipulates non-discrimination basing on race, colour, gender, religion, or disability. How can an article that endorses discrimination then be approved?
“Attempts to insert the Salafi interpretation of sharia into the constitution should be confronted very firmly,” Mr Balshi insisted. “It cannot be allowed, neither in the preamble nor in a separate text. It simply has to go.”
No conflict with sharia
The Coptic judge Ihab Ramzy, was another angry interviewee. “If the Committee of the Fifty allows the article 219 in any way into the constitution,” he said, “it would be betraying the Egyptian people and the revolution they waged to prise their Egypt out of the grip of the Islamists.
“The Muslim Brothers (MB) are now out of office, but I have strong doubts they are attempting a comeback for political Islam, this time at the hands of so-called liberals, through inserting the notorious article 219 in the constitution.
“We never had any conflict with sharia,” Dr Ramzy said. “It was the role of the SCC to interpret it and check that no rulings which contradict it would pass. The SCC endorsed an interpretation based on the sharia basic elements which are categorically proved, positively unambiguous, and offer unalloyed implications; thus eliminating all cause for conflict. The article 219 opens the door for sources of sharia interpretation on which Islamic scholars are not in unison and which give discriminatory interpretations.
“The result,” he predicted, “can only be unending sectarian conflict.”
Dr Ramzy appeared very pessimistic, and said that in case appeasing the Islamists leads to the inclusion of the article 219 in the draft constitution, the only option left for Copts and seculars is to vote ‘no’ in the referendum; a move which brings us back to Square One.
The will of the people
Watani talked to Naguib Abadir, member of the board of the liberal al-Misriyeen al-Ahrar (The Free Egyptians) political party, and an extra member of the Committee of the Fifty. Mr Abadir lamented what he described as the will of the minority overruling the will of the majority in the committee. “The Salafis flagrantly boasted before, when the Islamist 2012 constitution was written,” he said, “that they had ‘tricked’ Egypt into it. I feel very sad now as I watch what amounts to a replay of the Salafi trickery and insistence on being included only through the addition of the article 219. It is especially painful that this goes on under the nose of such prominent legal and liberal figures of the calibre of Amr Moussa, Mona Zulfiqar, or Gaber Nassar.”
So now, Watani asked, will the liberals and seculars stand helpless as they see another Islamist constitution rammed down their throats, this time in the name of ‘inclusion’? “We are working very hard at exposing the truth to the public,” Mr Abadir said. “It is the Egyptian people who made the revolution to oust the Islamists, and it is only through the will of that people, the public pressure it can exert, that Egypt can get her longed-for civic constitution.”
The painting is by Wagdy Habashy, 1963, oil on canvas, and depicts the various sectors of the Egyptian community working for the constitution
16 November 2013