In the early hours of dawn last Friday, the Constituent Assembly which has written a draft institution for Egypt finished off their work.
Judge Hussam al-Ghuriani who heads the CA said they would present the draft constitution to President Mohamed Mursi Friday morning, after which it should be offered for approval in a public referendum.
The three main Churches in Egypt: the Coptic Orthodox, the Coptic Catholic, and the Evangelical, had, on Friday 16 November—two days before the seating of the new Coptic Orthodox patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, had jointly withdrawn from the CA.
The move, according to the then acting patriarch Anba Pachomeus, came in protest against what he described as the deviation of the CA from drafting a national, consensual constitution.
The withdrawal statement
The withdrawal statement said that the Egyptian Churches had closely followed the efforts of the CA, and scrutinised the various constitution drafts it had produced. The Churches’ representatives participated in all the CA sessions and those of all its branch committees. The Churches also carefully monitored responses by the various State institutions, the Egyptian public, and especially Coptic public opinion, to the work of the CA.
“The Egyptian Churches sensed a general discomfort at the direction the draft constitution was taking. We concluded that the proposed constitution, in its current draft, does not reflect the desired national consensus, neither does it express Egypt’s age-old diversity. We also see it as a departure from Egypt’s constitutional heritage instituted so diligently by the country’s Muslims and Copts, and a curtailment of the rights, freedoms, and citizenship Egyptians have acquired through the years.”
“Our representatives,” the Churches’ statement said, “participated in the CA’s efforts in a spirit of love, openness, and patriotism; and interacted through-and-through with the full spectrum of the political forces. The resultant product, however, came contrary to our expectations of national consensus. This has driven us to withdraw our membership from the CA. We hope that, together with the Egyptian people, its institutions and national forces, we can achieve a constitution which expresses the aspirations of Egyptians for a life of freedom, dignity, equality, and social justice; and maintains an Egyptian civil State.”
The decision to withdraw was taken during a 70-member meeting at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abassiya, Cairo. Anba Pachomeus presided over the meeting. Participating from the Coptic Orthodox Church were the Bishop of Youth Anba Moussa, and member of the CA and Bishop of Tanta Anba Pola. The Deputy Patriarch to the Coptic Catholic Patriarch Anba Yuhanna Qulta, also participated, as did the then President’s aide Samir Morqos who said he came in his personal not official capacity. [Morqos tendered his resignation to Mursi last Friday, in protest against the Constitutional Declaration announced by the President.] From the Coptic Orthodox Melli (Community) Council there were the Judges Edward Ghaleb and Munsif Soliman who are also members of the CA. The [Coptic] politicians who attended included Amir Ramzy, Ihab Ramzy, Marguerite Azer, Suzy Nashed, Khaled al-Assiuty, Georgette Qellini, Tharwat Bekheit, Mamdouh Ramzy and John Talaat.
When put to the vote: 60 participants voted for withdrawal, five voted for freezing the membership of the Church in the CA, and five voted for the Church to remain in the CA.
Earlier in the week, 25 secular members of the CA had frozen their membership in the assembly; these members later withdrew, as did the representatives of the Journalists’ Syndicate and more politicians. The secular members’ action came in retaliation to the hegemony the Islamists hold over the assembly, and their persistence in drafting a constitution which serves their objectives to the exclusion of all others.
Threats to the Church
After the meeting, Anba Pachomeus announced that the three Churches had decided to withdraw their representatives from the assembly because of the hegemony of the Islamist majority. “The assembly went out of its consensual track which is the base of forming any constitution in the world,” Anba Pachomeus said. “The Church remained patient to the last minute, and attempted to override differences and proceed with its patriotic contribution to the work of the assembly, despite public pressure to withdraw. The Church did its best to channel the drafting of the constitution in the interest of the country, and to reach a consensual draft constitution. The majority members, however, were working on their own to draft a constitution that does not accommodate Egypt’s historic diversity and plurality. The Islamist majority insisted on including articles already rejected by all other sectors; accordingly, he said, the Churches decided to withdraw from the CA, after carefully considering all the expert parliamentary and legal opinions.
The CA had threatened the Church that, in case it withdrew, the articles in the draft constitution that stipulate the rights of Christians would be abolished.
Anba Pachomeus made reference to what he described as “perilous” articles in the draft constitution, of which very few people are aware. Article 220 states that: “The principles of the Islamic sharia constitute its comprehensive sources (the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunna) and their fundamental bases and recognised sources among the Sunnis and the Muslim assembly”. The ‘recognised sources’ are the interpretations and opinions cited by Islamic scholars until Ibn-Taymiyyah in the 18th century, and are not today endorsed by all Muslim scholars; this opens the door for wide conflict.
Article 220 was drafted by the Islamist majority as an extension to Article 2 which stipulates that Islam is the religion of the State, Arabic its language and the principles of Islamic sharia the source of legislation. Hardline Islamists had demanded to substitute “rules” for “principles” but were not able to in face of harsh opposition from the more moderate currents. To counter this, they came up with Article 220.
Anba Pachomeus said the Church was part of Egypt, deeply cared about its interests, and prayed for its peace all the time. The Church, he said, in its decision to withdraw from the CA had heeded the pulse of the street and Coptic public opinion.
Youth for withdrawal
In the St Mark’s cathedral grounds, the Maspero Youth Union (MYU) held a demonstration to applaud and support the Church’s decision to withdraw from the CA.
Andrawus Uweida, the coordinator-general of MYU said that the withdrawal decision—although late—gave rise to feelings of comfort not only among Copts but among all Egyptians. Uweida added the MYU had already announced its situation vis-à-vis the CA earlier, and had called upon the Church to withdraw from what it saw as a sectarian body that did not reflect the diversity of the Egyptian society. Had the Church remained in the assembly, he said, “it would have been an accomplice in a crime that aimed to destroy Egypt through a sectarian constitution.”
“We will listen, then decide”
In a courtesy meeting between President Mursi and Pope Tawadros II three days after the new Pope’s enthronement on Sunday 18 November, the President suggested a meeting the following Friday between a number of CA members and Church representatives, to mull over the differences and reach common ground. “The final decision is in our hands,” the Pope said. “We will listen to them and, if the result achieves a consensual vision, this is what we are after.”
Friday 23 November came with new political turmoil in the wake of President Mursi’s Constitutional Declaration, and the scheduled meeting never materialised.
In an effort to make sure their voices are heard in the Church, and to show their approbation for the withdrawal decision, Coptic youth were joined by representatives of secular political movements in a sit-in last Monday at St Mark’s. The demonstrators said they rejected pressures applied by the President and the Muslim Brothers (MB), to whom President Mursi belongs, on the Church to oblige her to renege on the withdrawal decision. The youth said they were applying counter pressure of their own.
Sherif Ramzy, founder of Coptic Without Borders expressed his skepticism regarding a visit the MB Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie was to pay Pope Tawadros II on Tuesday. The Pope postponed the visit in view of the turmoil and unrest gripping Egypt. Ramzy said that two weeks have already passed since the Pope’s enthronement, and any talk of ‘congratulations’ was already too late. “We expect that Mr Badie’s visit was with the purpose of pressuring the Church to go back to the CA” Ramzy said.
The Churches, whose legal and constitutional experts had written a detailed report on the Churches’ reservations and objections to Egypt’s draft constitution, insisted they were out, unless their specific demands to secure a national, consensual Egyptian draft constitution are met.
No point to reconsider
A mediation attempted between the Churches and CA members, by the venerable Islamic institution, al-Azhar, failed. The mediation attempt was conducted during a meeting at the headquarters of al-Azhar. Participating in the meeting were Safwat Abdel-Ghani of the Gamaa Islamiya, Mohamed al-Beltagui of the Muslim Brothers, the Salafi Yunis Makhyun, Farid Ismail and Abul-Ela Madi of al-Wassat Party, Ahmed Maher of 6 April movement, Abdel-Alim Daoud and Ayman Nour of al-Ghad Party, former MP Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, and Culture Minister Saber Arab.
Representing the Coptic Orthodox was Melli (Community) Council member Kamel Saleh; the Coptic Catholic was represented by its patriarchal deputy Bishop Yuhanna Qulta; and the Evangelical by its head, Dr Safwat al-Bayadi.
Mr Saleh presented the Churches’ grievances against the draft constitution, and their objection to the hegemony of the Islamists over it, in absolute rejection to the age-old Egyptian diversity. This, Mr Saleh said, gave rise to serious fears among Copts of a future Islamist State in Egypt. The meeting, however, failed to offer any answers to the Churches demands, so there was no point in considering a return to the CA, Mr Saleh said.
If this constitution is passed, it will be the first ever in Egypt’s history that has been written without the Church participating.
2 December 2012