22 August 2010
Dr Ahmed Fathy Sorour has been Speaker of the People’s Assembly (PA)—the lower house of Egypt’s parliament—for some two decades today. Throughout this extended period he has succeeded in winning the general respect of Egyptians for what was seen as his objectivity and impartiality, as well as his utmost decency in tongue and pen. He took care never to take sides with the government or the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP); his only loyalty appeared to be for the Constitution, law and regulations.
Lately, however, Dr Sorour has been exhibiting signs of shifting from his strict impartiality, especially where critical or sensitive issues are concerned. He appears to have no scruples in defending specific policies, simply because they are adopted by the government and NDP. His language has, in not a few cases, departed from its usual astuteness, and he slipped into using rhetoric perceived by others as too harsh. I found myself wondering whether this was the outcome of overconfidence that high-ranking officials are practically immune to questioning, or due to the absence of consultants who would normally have drawn attention to mistaken stances or rhetoric?
Dr Sorour was, earlier this month, hosted by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) in an event to celebrate the launching of his book on the legal confrontation of terrorism. It was normal that he should be inundated with questions by those attending, in his capacity as representative of the highest legislative authority in Egypt and defender of pluralism and freedom of expression.
Among the questions posed to Dr Sorour was one on the demand for a quota for Copts in the PA. It is almost a half-century now that 50 per cent of parliamentary seats have been allocated for peasants and labourers and, since 2007, 64 seats were allocated to women in two consecutive parliamentary rounds. Meanwhile, the demand for a quota of seats to be allocated for Copts, in a similar move of positive discrimination, was rejected. Dr Sorour’s comment on the Coptic demand was that it was “a joke that ought never to be taken seriously, since Copts are part of the fabric of the Egyptian nation.” Any Copt who aspires to be a member of parliament, he said, may do so by running in the elections.
It shocked me that Dr Sorour should describe a demand by a sector of Egyptians as “a joke”. It belittles the hopes and aspirations of a sector looking for empowerment to positively participate in public life, following decades of exclusion and marginalisation. This sector, it is worth remarking, is not restricted to Copts alone, but includes many Muslims who would like to repeal the legacy of three decades of injustice and exclusion seen by Copts. Positive discrimination can bring Copts back to their normal place on the political scene, and work to cure the ailment of Coptic exclusion from the Egyptian political body.
I do not see anything wrong with the concept of positive discrimination. It is precisely this notion which brought about a 50 per cent quota for peasants and labourers, and a quota for women. But for the political policy-makers to describe both these quotas as legitimate moves in the direction of furthering citizenship concepts while a quota for Copts is described as national treason, is nothing short of flawed political rationalisation and curtailment of citizenship rights. It is true our fathers and grandfathers rejected a Coptic parliamentary quota in the heyday of the nationalist movement during the 1920s and 1930s but, back then, the political climate was sufficiently liberal and open to full Coptic political participation. Copts were instrumental in drawing up Egypt’s Constitution in 1923; they occupied leading State posts, and won parliamentary seats through free elections. Today, the political scene is diametrically different. When we demand a Coptic quota we do not go back on the nationalist principles of the good old days of the early 20th century, but rather strive to regain it.
I would like to offer a re-wording of the declaration Dr Sorour made at the BA; it may help him see the double standards he applied while dealing with a nationalist political issue. What if Dr Sorour’s declaration reads as: “The allocation of a parliamentary quota for peasants and labourers is a joke that ought not be taken seriously, since peasants and labourers are a genuine part of the Egyptian national fabric. The allocation of a quota for women is also a joke since women are a genuine part of the national fabric.”
No mater how much Dr Sorour tries to legitimise specific quotas and criminalise another, the “joke” should apply indiscriminately to all.