The lack of any sense of time in case of urgency seems to be among the list of idiosyncratic traits vintage to our beloved Egypt. Many were the real life problems that long screamed for legislative reform to open the doors of hope before desperate humans; yet, once that reform took off, it was met with procrastination and stalling on the part of those in charge of bringing it to life. It was as though they had no clue of how urgent and critical it was, or were oblivious to the suffering of those who impatiently awaited it to put an end to their misery.
I am talking here about the Personal Status Law for Christians, also known as the Family Law for Christians. This October marks seven years on the Constitutional entitlement for Christians in Egypt to a family law that accords with their doctrine, four years on the arduous journey of drafting it by the three major Egyptian Churches, and one year on handing it to the Cabinet. As matters stand today, the draft law still hangs between Church and government for final legal review after which the government should submit it to the House of Representatives for discussion and passage. Let me go through the path trodden by this draft law.
The 2014 Constitution spelled out the imperativeness of enacting legislation to organise family-related issues for Christians, in order to eliminate a legislative glitch that has been ongoing since 1938. Besides being a Constitutional entitlement, the Family Law for Christians should draw the curtain on a long, distressful legacy of conflict between the Church and congregation on one side, and the courts of law on the other. The conflict is the outcome of the fact that current legislation governing Christian marriage and divorce, known as the 1938 Bylaws, was drafted by a Coptic lay council and passed in 1938 despite serious Church objections to it. The Church insists it violates the teaching of the Bible; consequently, it does not recognise rulings in cases where they contradict Church doctrine.
Article III of the 2014 Constitution reads: “The doctrinal principles of Egyptian Christians and Jews are the main source of legislation that governs their respective personal status [family] and religious affairs, and the selection of their spiritual leaders.” Once the 2014 Constitution was established, the hope to fulfil this constitutional entitlement was born.
Since the majority of Christians in Egypt belong to the Coptic Orthodox, Catholic or Evangelical Churches, meetings between the committees concerned with family issues in the three Churches began. It took a long time and numerous meetings for the three Churches to settle on a common draft that agreed with the doctrinal teachings of each. I closely followed the matter, and wrote in October 2018 enquiring about the draft law and the reason for its four-year delay. I wrote again a month later to inform readers that the draft law was still unresolved by the Churches. I was dismayed that four years had not been enough for the Churches to complete drafting the law. However I could do nothing but patiently wait, and pray for the families that suffered and looked for salvation in the law once it saw light.
According to official Church sources, a draft was finally drawn and approved in February 2020 by the three major Churches in Egypt, and was soon to be handed to the Cabinet in order for the government to submit it in turn to Parliament. On 15 October 2020, it was announced that representatives of the three Churches had handed the draft law, which they termed “The Egyptian Family Law”, to the Cabinet. The draft included articles which all the Churches in Egypt had agreed upon, as well as articles particular to each Church according to its doctrinal teachings. Once passed by Parliament, the law should apply to all Egyptian Christians in Egypt.
In September 2020, I wrote before the start of the new legislative session of Egypt’s new bicameral Parliament reviewing the House of Representatives’ prospective legislative agenda, which I hoped would include the draft Family Law for Christians.
All through Parliament’s last legislative session which adjourned in July 2021, there was nothing to suggest that the government had referred the draft Egyptian Family Law to Parliament. We now aspire for this to take place during the current legislative session which set off earlier this month. The last we heard of the draft law was that it had been undergoing a final legal review by a Ministry of Justice committee and representatives of the three Churches, according to declarations by Justice Minister Omar Marwan. The review had been ongoing for three months, he said and, once completed, the bill would be submitted to the government which would then refer it to Parliament for discussion and passage.
Could we now cling to the hope that the draft Egyptian Family Law would find its way to Parliament’s legislative agenda this session? Could we look forward to its approval and passage, to end an eight-year legislative journey with a law crucial to Egyptian Christians?