Egypt’s New Challenge: Writing a New Constitution

by ASHRAF RAMELAH October 29, 2013

As Egyptians wait for the constituent assembly to produce the country's new foundational document, the world can only speculate as to how well the new draft  will distinguish Egypt's future from its past. Article 2 of Sadat's 1971 constitution is the controversial point today. Since 1980, it states:

"Islam is the state religion, and the Arabic language is its official language. The principles of Islamic sharia law are the main source of legislation."

If its wording is written into the draft of Egypt's new constitution, that will substantiate a religious state and a draft that is unsuccessful for the third time since the Egyptians rebelled against authoritarianism and religious supremacy, and in all likelihood, mark the end of a modern renaissance sought by the people who rose up in January 2011.

Article 2 spells out two critical foundational points -- a state designated religion and religious doctrine as the source of civil law -- which clash with the formation of democracy. Even if these Islamic measures are accompanied by words promoting liberty, equality and human rights elsewhere in the same writing, the use of Article 2 will present a huge problem for the liberal, secular, pro-democracy freedom movement. This could well be a signal for the continuance of Egypt's already two-year old revolt which originated against supremacies of a political class using religion to accrue power. 

The greatest contributor to the making of Article 2 and its formation of the deeply rooted Islamic state was former President Anwar Sadat. Remember that Sadat's constitution promised free markets, individual freedom, democratic procedures and safeguards for an independent judiciary; other buried clauses granted his presidency complete power, and he used it to appropriate exclusive ownership of the state for Islam. In 1971Sadat replaced Egypt's 1954 constitution thereby moving the country away from the policies of socialism enacted by his predecessor, Gamal Abdul Nasser. Sadat sought the help of Islamists who influenced the populace against socialism in accordance with Islamic beliefs. In return, he added pro-Islam insertions to Egypt's constitution making Islam the state religion, Arabic the official language and Islam a source of Egyptian law (later changing "a source'" to "the source"). As such, Sadat authorized Islam to lay claim to Egypt, fueling its drive.

The key to Sadat's success was "Islamic duality" -- a political doctrine of deception based upon the Hadith [tales of the life of Muhammed] and the Sira [Mohamed's biography] in which the Prophet teaches that to advance Islam, it is permissible to lie in three cases: to a wife, to a friend and to an enemy. For example, Sadat's constitutional article declaring religious freedom was followed by his presidential order to place the Coptic Pope under house arrest; his constitutional article declaring freedom of press was followed by his arrest of journalists, including jailing Mohammad Hassnen, the head of Al-Ahram newspaper. We will likely see this again with the forthcoming constitution.

Envision the following scenario. Upon receiving the draft, Egyptians will wait for constitutional experts in the media to fully explain and challenge it in the period of time between its issuance and the popular referendum vote to approve it. The populace that makes up the pro-democracy freedom movement might not be able to comprehend the full implications of the extensive fine print inside the sugar coating of repeated words on human rights and freedom. Meanwhile, assembly committee members assigned to write separate draft sections will hawk their special wares to the country, selling Sharia and selling democracy.

Egyptians have no reason to believe that democratic words written into their constitution will not as readily be written out or abrogated by articles within the same text. But dissatisfaction will be delayed; the draft will come to a vote and be approved. Disillusionment will set in sometime after the draft becomes official and the new constitution is in use. The reality of another wave of Islamic requirements (civilization jihad) will hit Egyptians when they face serious roadblocks to equality and human rights. The populace, no longer illiterate and trusting as in the time of Sadat but, now determined without fear, will fill the streets and squares; clashes will continue to keep alive the goals of the revolution.

Egyptians are no longer infected with the indoctrination of "democracy equals evil" transmitted by the policies and propaganda of past dictators which bonded the populace to the rise of the Egyptian Islamic state. Over decades Egypt's Islamic presidents - Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak - systematically created today's embedded culture of Islam's power and privilege. Democracy is unfathomable as it allows the doctrine of Islam (and its followers) to co-exist equally with other religions and ideologies -- a societal demotion considered heretical and unacceptable - and that cannot possibly be the desired outcome of those now crafting Egypt's constitution. Majority members will aim for the status-quo, and to salvage and sanitize the face of Islam ruined by the Morsi regime's push toward Sharia. They saw how Islam's image was damaged due to the regressive religious politics of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Morsi's terrorist administration. Now they will attempt to renew interest in Islam through moderation and reinvent it in modern ways that pander to the new liberal-leaning constituency. 

Representatives from the Coptic Church make up about five percent of the constituent assembly, and include bishops. The invitation from the interim government to the church illustrates that Egypt continues to play up the importance of religion, as opposed to equality and freedom of religion. In a country where religious identity cards are carried by every citizen, double standards and discrimination throughout society are based on religion. It is therefore disappointing to see the same game being played now within the critical moment of laying a foundation for expunging these prejudices. So far, bishops in the assembly, sensing that Islam will remain supreme at the completion of this "democratic" constitution, have been concentrating on protecting church doctrine

The cultural mindset is inescapable. The state run system - elite power structures within state bureaucracies - and its corruption must also be defeated. Freedom fighters will need be vigilant for years to come, develop strong leaders and continually stage protests to keep the dynamic for democratic values and institutions moving forward. Gradualism, at best, will be the method of democracy-building in Egypt for generations to come.  

The major achievement of the January 2011 freedom uprising has been to force the writing of Egypt's constitution before presidential and parliamentary elections take place - a huge accomplishment for the Egyptian freedom movement. After more than two years of sacrifice, bloodshed, false starts, and a surprising alliance with Egypt's military, a coalition stronghold of 30 million individuals in the name of freedom matures daily in the process -- equipping themselves with ever greater courage and the tenacity required for the long run. Contributing Editor Ashraf Ramelah is founder and president of Voice of the Copts, a human rights organization drawing attention to the suffering of Coptic Christians in Egypt and educating as to the chilling effect of Sharia (Islamic law).   


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