Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Battle over Egypt's Secular and Muslim Character

One of the major objectives of the Egyptian revolution is to create a system that allows Egyptians to influence decision-making by democratic institutions. Since the 1920's, secular parties and the Muslim Brotherhood have fought over the degree to which the country's Constitution, laws, regulations, and programs reflect a separation or integration of religion and state. From 1923-1980, secularism was the dominant feature of Egyptian Constitutions. However, in 1980, to reduce pressure on the regime from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic political groups, President Sadat initiated an amendment to Article 2 of the Constitution, which now states, "Principles of Islamic Law (Sharia) are the principal source of legislation."  Egypt, which has a civil law system inspired by France, was subsequently required to verify that laws or draft laws are consistent with Islamic law. In practice, this requirement applied only to personal status laws, dealing with such issues as marriage, divorce, child support and inheritance. Criminal laws, as contained in the Penal Code, have not been reviewed from a perspective of Sharia.

The Constitution contains other references to the Muslim character of the state. Article 2 contains, "Islam is the religion of the state..." Article 19 reads, "Religious education shall be a principal subject in the courses of general education."

These provisions are balanced by statements promoting freedom of religion and opposing discrimination. Article 46 affirms, "The state shall guarantee the freedom of belief and the freedom of practice of religious rites." Article 40 declares, "All citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination between them due to race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed."

After the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), fielding candidates running as independents in 2005, won 20% of the seats of the the People's Assembly, President Mubarak in 2007 pushed through an Amendment of Article 5, which forbids using religion in political campaigns. It reads, "Citizens have the right to organize political parties according to the law, and no political activity shall be exercised nor political parties established on the basis of religion or discrimination due to gender or race."  This amendment, reflecting a secular outlook, effectively prohibits the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups from competing in elections.

One of the novelties of the mass movement that unseated Mubarak was that it brought together secularists with Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters.  The unstated implication was that everyone supported removal of the religious restrictions of Article 5, so that the Muslim Brotherhood could participate in elections. Whether the Constitution is amended or replaced, the new language will establish no restrictions on electoral participation by the MB.

The Constitution is the basic law of Egypt, but many of its provisions were inapplicable during the full thirty years of the Mubarak regime, since the country was under a state of emergency. Throughout this time, Mubarak manipulated laws, government, justice institutions and the media to divide Christians and Muslims, discriminate against minorities such as Baha'is, Shias, atheists and homosexuals, and persecute leaders and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Coptic Christians, who constitute about 10% of the population, were prevented from building and repairing churches, restricted from certain professions and inadequately protected from occasional attacks by thugs. Many Egyptians accuse State Security of organizing attacks on churches and stores owned by Copts.

One set of issues targeted by Egyptian human rights advocates, including the anti-Mubarak group Kifaya, are the obstacles faced by Baha'is, atheists and members of other unofficially recognized religions in gaining identification papers.  ID cards, whether in paper or electronic version, are required for employment, education, banking, owning property, health care, traveling, birth, death, marriage, divorce, and vaccination of children.  The Ministry of Interior required citizens to indicate their religion on the cards, but they were given only three choices: Islam; Christianity; and Judaism.  Unless the 2,000 Baha'is were prepared to lie about their religion, they had difficulty gaining access to these cards. In 2006, the Ministry of Interior asked USAID for assistance in completing distribution of ID cards to several million citizens.  It refused USAID's offer to provide assistance from the US organization IFES to insure that all citizens, including Baha'is, could receive their cards.  Several court cases tested the Government's position on this issue, and Cairo's Court of Administrative Justice ruled in favor of the Baha'is in January 2008. The Ministry of Interior changed its policy to issue the first ID cards, without any religion noted, to two Baha'i teenagers in August 2009.

In February 2011, a constitutional review committee was mandated by the military to draft revisions to several articles. Its mandate does not include articles that define the secular or Muslim character of the state or the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in elections. In defining the tasks of the committee, the military assumed that an elected government would be in a better position to deal with these issues, either through constitutional amendments or by putting in place a new constitution.

Both secular groups and the Muslim Brotherhood are preparing for the inevitable battle over the secular or religious character of the Egyptian state. Secular groups are focusing on these general principles:
1. All Egyptians are born free and equal in dignity and rights
2. All Egyptians have the right of free thought and religion.
3. All Egyptians are equal before the law.
4. Any Egyptian is entitled to all rights and freedoms without distinction such as race, gender, religion or origin.
5. An Egyptian secular (civil) state is the only way to achieve these objectives.

The Muslim Brotherhood released a draft platform in 2007 that attempted to lay out its approach to governance. It included the formation of a council of religious scholars, elected by religious leaders. This council would advise the legislative and executive branches on religious law. Parliamentarians would determine which Islamic teachings are authoritative. The Supreme Constitutional Court would be the final arbiter. Women and non-Muslims would be excluded from holding senior governmental positions. The platform is unclear on several issues, including equality of political rights, legal areas that are improperly aligned with Islamic law and the necessity of maintaining a democratic system. Several MB leaders publicly questioned the need for a council of religious scholars and restrictions on women and non-Muslims, indicating that these issues are under debate. The MB apparently has not finalized the platform. In the post-revolutionary period, the MB has played a constructive role, focusing on putting in place the basic requirements for a competitive electoral system. Its leaders have indicated that it will neither field candidates for the presidential election nor seek a majority of parliamentary seats.

Egypt is enjoying a rare period of consensus between secular and Islamist groups. Egyptian military leaders, political actors, civil society groups and religious leaders should use this time to assure that the future debate on the secular or religious nature of the state takes place with maximum citizen participation and with accepted, legitimate rules on decision-making.  The international donor community may be useful in sharing lessons learned from other countries that have gone through similar transitions.

Rick Gold

From Post-Revolutionary Egypt


Don Wharton said...

Rick, do you know if any secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, or freethinkers have been able to get identity papers?

Gary Berg-Cross said...

The background for Don's question might be from a comment made by Naomi Paiss ( at last night's Rockville meeting. Naomi noted that both in Israel and Egypt identity card can say Christian, Muslim or Jewish. No Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers etc. allowed in these religious-centric states.