Primacy of Islam and Shari’a Law Expected to Remain in Egypt’s Constitution

Patrick Goodenough | February 21, 2011 | 4:59am EST
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Egyptian army soldiers are seen with their tanks positioned near the monument to the unknown soldier in Cairo, Egypt, on Tuesday Feb. 15, 2011. Egypt's military is trying to push ahead quickly with a transition after Mubarak resigned following 18 days of popular protests. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

( – An article in Egypt’s constitution that affirms Islam as the state religion likely will remain untouched despite hopes among the country’s Christian minority that the recent uprising would usher in an era of greater tolerance for non-Muslims.

A committee considering amendments to the 1971 constitution said in a statement Sunday that article II would not be amended, the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper reported.

Article II reads, “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language. Principles of Islamic law (Shari’a) are the principal source of legislation.”

The articles that are in line to be amended are those dealing with the state’s decision-making policies, including powers of the president and parliament, the statement said.

The committee was set up last week on the orders of the military council that took over when Hosni Mubarak stood down as president on February 11. It has been given 10 days to propose constitutional amendments to enable “free and fair” elections to be held. The suggested changes will be put to a referendum within two months.

The makeup of the committee caused some controversy. The military-appointed chairman, retired judge Tariq al-Bishri, is described in Egyptian media reports as a respected jurist supportive of an independent judiciary, but he also is associated with Al-Wasat, a “moderate” Islamist offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The panel members chosen by Bishri include a Muslim Brotherhood lawyer and former member of parliament. No other political party is represented, according to local reports.

The committee does include one member of the minority Coptic Christian community, but a Coptic Church lawyer, Nagib Gibrail, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that the appointee, a judge, had never been known to advocate for religious freedom.

Gibrail also pointed out that while the Coptic judge was appointed in his judicial capacity, the Muslim Brotherhood was represented politically on the committee.

All of the committee members are men. In a posting on his Twitter account on Saturday, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley voiced disappointment that no women were on the panel. “It is a concern that women are excluded from the constitutional committee that must ensure all rights.”

Muslim Brotherhood official Mohsen Radi said on Sunday that Copts and women should only be eligible for ministerial positions but not the presidency.

Copts are the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, a community that predates the Islamic conquests of the 7th century. Copts today comprise about 10 percent of Egypt’s predominantly Muslim population.

Christians have for many years faced discrimination, intolerance and persecution both from the state and Islamists, according to religious advocacy and human rights watchdogs.

A suicide bombing at a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year Day left 21 people dead, and was described as the worst sectarian attack targeting the minority in a decade.

Testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives last month, U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom member Nina Shea cited “serious, widespread, and long-standing human rights violations against religious minorities, as well as disfavored Muslims” in Egypt.

“Confronted by these violations, the Egyptian government has failed to take the necessary steps to halt the discrimination and repression against Christians and other minorities,” she said. “Too often, it has failed to punish the violators. This failure to mete out justice continues to foster a climate of impunity, making further attacks likely.”

‘Civil government, not Islamic government’

A Coptic Christian told CNSNews that Christians are hoping to see article II of the constitution amended, to declare specifically that Egypt is a country where freedom of religion is upheld.

(Other articles of the constitution, 40 and 46, do deal with freedom of belief and say citizens have “equal public rights and duties without discrimination between them due to race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed” but Copts say these has long been violated in many ways.)

Ramy Asfour expressed concern about the composition of the constitutional committee and the likely outcome of its work.

“I don’t know if the new one [constitution] will be okay or not, and if it is okay I don’t know how they will use it later,” he said.

Asked how he and Christian friends and family would feel about a new government in which the Muslim Brotherhood plays a major role, Asfour pointed to situations elsewhere in the region where strict Sunni or Shi’ite regimes are in place.

“I am afraid like Saudi Arabia or Iran … pay extra taxes for being Christian as they did before, or pushing me to change my religion, otherwise they kill me.”

(The tax reference is to jizya, a Qur’an-ordained tax historically levied on non-Muslim men living in Islamic societies. The jizya was enforced in Egypt and the rest of the Ottoman Empire until the mid-19th century.)

As for his hopes for a future Egypt, Asfour said he would like to see a country where all citizens can vote, where there is a “civil government not Islamic government,” where religion is removed from official identity documents, and where Christians can build churches freely, without the need for presidential approval.

The committee looking at the constitution says it will recommend amendments to the existing document, rather than propose a completely new one.

Some Egyptian human rights advocates would prefer to see it thrown out completely.

“No amendments, however extensive, would be enough to salvage it because the philosophy and spirit of the constitution are diametrically opposed to democratic values and human rights,” Cairo Center for Human Rights Studies director Bahy elddin Hassan said in an op-ed published in the Al Ahram newspaper. “The present constitution can only encourage despotism.”

In a recent document offering recommendations for a new Egyptian constitution, 15 human rights organizations in the country said the document should “establish the civil nature of the state as a state for all its citizens based on the principles of equality and impartiality toward all citizens regardless of religion, belief, gender, or race.”

It also should “guarantee freedom of religion and belief for all citizens without discrimination and criminalize incitement to religious hatred and sectarian violence,” said the groups, known collectively as the Forum for Independent Egyptian Human Rights Organizations.

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