The National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood Insist On It, While Church Leaders Reject It: A Hot Debate on the Continued Statement of the Authority of Islamic Sharia in the Constitution

In Salon Ibn Rushd by CIHRS

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) held a panel discussion, on 8/2/2007, as part of its Ibn Rushd Salon series entitled “Is it possible to reinforce citizenship in the presence of Article Two of the Constitution which states the Islam of the State and the Authority of Islamic Sharia?” Participating in the proceedings of the panel which was moderated by Bahey El Din Hasan, director of CIHRS, were all of Dr. Ahmed Abu Baraka, professor of political economy and parliament member representing the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Tharwat Badawy, professor of constitutional law at Cairo University, Priest Refaat Fikry of the Evangelical Church, Dr. Mustafa El Fiqy, head of the foreign relations committee in parliament, and Mamdouh El Sheikh, Islamic researcher and writer.
Bahey El Din Hasan initiated the discussion by stating that the issue of citizenship is one of the main banners which have been closely related to the presentation of constitutional amendments lately, pointing out that despite this, none of the proposed amendments have referred to Article Two of the constitution which has been the focus of deep controversy perhaps since May of 1980. This is when President Sadat, as part of institutionalizing the “state of science and faith”, took the initiative to amend this article stating that “the principles of Islamic Sharia the main source of legislation”. Hasan pointed out that the publicized part of this debate is much less than what actually goes on in private discussions and closed circles, and that the debate has become more serious since the proposal of the latest constitutional amendments, especially with the existence of contradictory statements on the position of Copts regarding the continued implementation of this article.
Priest Refaat Fekry presented his view on why he opposed the continued implementation of Article Two of the constitution, stating that its continuation contradicted calls for supporting citizenship and highlighted the idea of dhimma(1) which leads to decisions and practices which are subordinating to those who do not follow the religion of the state, expressing his fear that this article will be used, in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power, against Copts.
Fekry said that this article opposed democracy and international human rights declarations, and resulted in voter manipulation during elections on behalf of the Brotherhood, demanding the specific articulation of everyone’s positions on the shape the state is to take in the coming period, and whether it would be religious or civil.
Fekry suggested an alternative to Article Two which would instead state that “Arabic is the official language of the state, Islam is the religion of most of its citizens, and the principles of Islamic Sharia are one of the main sources of legislation.” which would not contradict Egypt’s obligations as stated by the human rights treaties it is a signatory to, or go against the citizenship rights of non Muslims, and the same time allows using divine law as one of the main sources of legislation. Fekry emphasised that a citizen’s right to enjoy all their civil freedoms should not depend on their religious beliefs. He also pointed to the ambiguity of the “principles of Sharia” referred to in the second article of the constitution, asking that they be explained and clarified. Fekry also reiterated that all state institutions must be committed to neutrality towards citizens’ religious beliefs, warning at the end of his speech that Egypt would be exposed to various threats if this article is not amended.
On his part, Dr. Mustafa El Fiqy head of the foreign relations committee in parliament stressed that most Copts refuse to tamper with the second article of the constitution and refuse the call to grant them a set parliamentary quota. He said that he discussed this matter with Coptic leaders who were unanimous in this refusal. He mentioned the denial of Bishop Murqos, representative of the Orthodox Church that this stems from a religious basis isolated from the currents of the political arena. Fiqy, who for a long number of years was responsible for the communication between the church and the state, said that the church does not represent Christians, just like the Azhar does not represent Muslims.
El Fiqy accentuated the fact that Coptic leaders who participated in these discussions were of the patriotism and flexibility that allowed them to say that the amendment of this article would increase chances for a conflict which they refuse, adding that they also belong to Arab Islamic heritage. El Fiqy said that he saw no justifiable fears from the continued implementation of this article and that it did not present a constraint on non Muslims, adding that there are other issues regarding Copts which need to be addressed including equality in public offices and increasing their numbers in the military and the judiciary.
El Fiqy described the speech of Priest Refaat Fekry as inaccurate, and indicated that much of Coptic allegations about discrimination against Copts are untrue, calling for an end to this sectarian attitude between Muslims and Christians, because it is not representative of the Egyptian public spirit regarding this matter.
Dr. Ahmed Abu Baraka underlined the Muslim Brotherhood’s respect for the principle of citizenship, and that everyone is equal in rights and responsibilities, and added that Islam does not acknowledge the sacredness of particular individuals, or a ruler that has a final word which cannot be rebuked on the allegation of the incorruptibility of specific individuals.
Abu Baraka clarified that the principles of Islamic Sharia are unchanging and decisively set, while the particular rulings change according to the nature of the time and place and specific conditions of the situation. He added that Islamic Sharia has characteristics and advantages which have differentiated it from all other religious and civil systems, in organising the relationship between individuals and between the individual and God and that Christian law does not address social relations or the organization of powers and authority. He also said that Islam does not accept the Western understanding of a religious state, since Islam does not adhere to what is known as the religious state and does not call for anything like what Europe’s Middle Ages saw of incomparable ecclesiastical tyranny.
Abu Baraka said that Islamic Sharia has been implemented on relations and dealings in Egypt since the Islamic campaigns overtook Egypt and its inclusion in the current constitution is not new, since it was also included in the 1923 and the 1964 constitutions, indicating that the fact that President Sadat exploited social needs to implement the principles of Sharia to pass constitutional amendments related to length of his rule is a matter that itself contradicted these principles. Abu Baraka mentioned examples to prove that Sharia is unchanging and set, disagreeing with what others had said regarding the ambiguity and vagueness of the principles of Sharia, reiterating that Islam created a system of law that protected the rights of citizenship and did not contradict the principle of the sovereignty of the people and the equality of opportunities among citizens.
Dr. Tharwat badawy agreed that the formulation of Article Two of the constitution and its amendments was Sadat’s attempt to appease Islamic currents and push them to support the amendment of Article 77, which abolished the limit on the number of presidential terms. Despite this, he considered the opposition of Copts living abroad to the article as influenced and encouraged by Zionist forces in the United States.
Badawy specified that Copts which participated in the formulation of the 1923 constitution as part of the “ Committee of the 30” welcomed the articulation that said Islam is the religion of the state, ensuring that relating Islam to the state is not new. He explained that legislation issued after the French Revolution relied on much of Islamic Sharia, and added that the civil law issued in 1948 which stated that Islamic Sharia is one of the sources of legislation did not provoke objections from anyone.
Mamdouh El Sheikh said that any talk about the role of religion must not treat it as separate from politics, and that the presence of religion in politics is not new, even in Western civilisation, and that the formation of Anglo-Saxon civilisation did not contain this same split between religion and politics which some Arab intellectuals suffer. He stated that Article Two of the Egyptian constitution does not lead to enforcing Islamic Sharia on anyone, and called for the implementation of a political formula which does not exclude religion, mentioning that the concept of a civil state does not mean setting religion aside. He concluded that Article Two of the constitution does not call for all this commotion, because it “does not mean anything” since there is no set, accepted, inclusive definition of the principles of Sharia.

(1) Dhimma is a term that comes from Islamic heritage and is used by men of religion to refer to the right of non Muslims to practice their religion and enjoy safety and protection on the condition that they pay material compensation to the Muslim state and accept its rulings in matters other than their particular religious ones.

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