Problems on hold
All eyes in Egypt are now expectantly turned on the House of Representatives as it embarks on the second round of its legislative term, and resumes its role in legislation and monitoring. The House should work on the legislative agenda presented to it by the government, as well as on proposals for laws offered by the various political parties or blocs in parliament. In this context I today open a file that was long placed on hold but which has recently surfaced and requires a bold approach by the House. By this I mean the issue of the religion box on Egyptian ID papers, an issue that persistently defies the Constitution, contradicts its principles, and makes a mockery of the concepts of equality and non-discrimination.
The Constitution we approved in a landslide vote in 2014, and which consequently regulates our lives on this land, declares in its preamble: “The 1919 [nationalist] Revolution instituted the bases of citizenship and equality among the children of this nation…” It also says: “We write a Constitution that achieves equality among us in rights and duties without any discrimination…”
The Constitution goes on to confirm these principles in its articles.
Article 9: The State is committed to achieve equal opportunity for all citizens without discrimination.
Article 53: Citizens are equal before the law. They are equal in basic rights and public duties. There shall be no discrimination among them basing on religion, creed, origin, ethnicity, colour, disability, social standard, political affiliation, geographic locality or any other reason. Discrimination and inciting hatred are crimes punishable by law. The State is committed to take the necessary measures to put an end to all sorts of discrimination. The law shall regulate the establishment of an independent commission for this purpose.
Despite the fact that the Constitution upholds equality and non-discrimination, the reality on the ground is that discrimination is alive and kicking. The religion box remains on the ID cards of Egyptians, and discrimination basing on religious identity persists in many aspects of daily life, in education and in work. The first stone was thrown in the still waters, however, and has caused a strong ripple effect. MP Alaa’ Abdel-Moneim, spokesperson of the Support Egypt bloc in the House of Representatives, presented during the first parliamentary round a proposal of a law to remove the religion box from ID papers. The proposal was not discussed during the first round owing to the overload of legislative burdens on parliament then, but it aroused controversy in many circles. Will it be placed on the legislative agenda of parliament during the second round?
The coming weeks should reveal whether or not MP Abdel-Moneim’s proposal would see light. The decision will without doubt come after a harsh battle between those who call for a civil State and those who cling to the advantages of a religious-based State. It will be a struggle between those who belong to the majority religion and stand secure in all their rights, and those of the minority religion who are concerned about the persistence of forms of discrimination and exclusion that deprive them of the equality they are entitled to as Egyptians.
Whereas an Egyptian’s religion is cited on his or her national ID card, it has no mention in passports. Is this a symptom of the schizophrenic behaviour displayed by the State in some aspects? When an Egyptian official was asked about religious discrimination in Egypt, he replied that equality among Egyptians was absolute and that their passports carry no indication of their religious identity. Is this an attempt to beautify the image of Egypt by showing that the document Egyptians use to travel the world says nothing about their religion? At home, however, the discriminatory reference that categorises them remains embedded in their ID cards, in the document which identifies each.
Some might say that removing the religion box from ID papers will not obscure a person’s religious identity, since the mere name of an Egyptian betrays his or her religion—Christians commonly have the names of saints while Muslims use typically Islamic names. This is indeed a fact, but it remains the responsibility of the State and its legislative and executive apparatuses to fulfil the equality and non-discrimination principles endorsed by the Constitution, and to set a good example that it does not discriminate between citizens according to their religion.
Removing the religion box from ID papers will definitely not put an end overnight to religious discrimination, but it will be a bold, civilised step in the right direction on the long path towards a civil State. So will parliament do it?
9 October 2016