A new Egyptian constitution is in the writing, and hopes are high that it would lay the foundation for a civic, modern, democratic State and prepare the ground for legislation that would secure rights and freedoms for all Egyptians. Future legislation should not discriminate between Egyptians with regard to gender, colour, race, religion or creed. Constitutions are written to spell out the principles on which a State is founded and that implicitly guarantee equal rights to all; laws then translate the principles into practical regulations that do not go against well-established social norms.
The new constitution is a rewrite of the 2012 constitution which was finalised in an overnight session by an overwhelmingly Islamist panel and rushed through a referendum held by Egypt’s Islamist president Muhammad Mursi. The turnout in the referendum was little more than 30 per cent, since it came on the heels of a constitutional declaration by Mursi in which he grabbed power and immunised the constitutional panel against being contested in courts of law.
Today, controversy rages around Article 3 in the “Basic Fundamentals” section, under the chapter “The State and the Society” of the 2012 constitution. The original article reads: “The canons of Egyptian Christians and Jews are the main source of legislation for their personal status laws, religious affairs, and the selection of their spiritual leaders”. As the Committee of Fifty undertakes the task of rewriting the 2012 constitution and purging it of dubious texts which breed discriminatory legislation, a strong call has been made by rights and equality activists to replace the “Christians and Jews” in Article 3 with “Non-Muslims”. The new article would then read: “The canons of Egyptian non-Muslims are the main source of legislation for their personal status laws, religious affairs, and the selection of their spiritual leaders”.
The call was met with wide debate among the members of the Committee of Fifty, and spread into Egypt’s religious, rights, political and media circles. The result was that two opposite camps directly formed; one enthused over the amendment as the ultimate in securing rights, while the other camp rejected the amendment for fear of opening the door to ‘beliefs and notions that are foreign to the Egyptian society’. Amid the heated controversy many appeared to forget that, in essence, it is the role of the constitution to allow not to restrain; legislation is then enacted to guarantee that no ill may befall the community on account of the allowances guaranteed.
The wide majority of Egyptians belong to one of the three Abrahamic religions; Muslims are a majority, Christians a minority, and Jews a very slight minority. But other minorities, albeit tiny ones, exist. Many of them belong to religions that worship One God and hold on to the values of love, goodness, and compassion; interacting with the community within a framework of peace, stability and security. Followers of these religions live on Egyptian soil, coexist with Egyptians, assume the same duties and obey the same laws. Why should the community then deny them the same rights, to the point of excluding these rights in the constitution?
Taking this issue out of its human context and shifting it towards unnecessarily sensitive concerns constitutes a seriously flawed attitude that does not sit well with a constitution for all Egyptians. Why the insistence on implicating in this controversy al-Azhar and the Church, whose very raison d’être is to promote the Islamic and the Christian calls respectively? How can it be presumed that al-Azhar or the Church would endorse other religions?
The lamenting and warning against granting non-Abrahamic-religion individuals the same rights as those who belong to the Abrahamic faith, and the claim that this would allow the infiltration of ‘suspicious notions and heresies’ into the society is but a scarecrow to scare off attempts to pass articles that would secure these rights. Yet there should be no fears; laws and regulations may be enacted to ensure the adequate application of the principles of the constitution without disrupting the security and peace of the community and without contradicting its values, ideals and norms.
When the 2012 constitution was written we suffered under the hegemony of one faction of Egyptians, the Islamists, whose then hidden intentions to dominate Egypt led to texts with ambiguous, dual meaning. The result was an unfair, discriminatory constitution which did not secure equal rights and freedoms for all. Today, we have the chance to amend this constitution and purge it of its flaws. Will we fall in the same pitfall?
6 October 2013