Sonia Farid: Letter from Cairo / The one-article constitution


I once heard a political analyst in one of those post-revolution seminars about the future of Egypt wonder why the Egyptian constitution is made up of 211 articles while the American constitution has only seven and the United Kingdom has no constitution at all.

“Let me ask you something,” he addressed the audience. “Does the number of articles reflect the amount of freedom enjoyed by the citizens of the country governed by this constitution?”

“Of course not,” replied the audience confidently.

I guess he and they overlooked a very crucial point, that since the regime was toppled and talk started about what the next phase would be like, the constitution has in so many cases boiled down to one single article.

“Islam is the official religion of the state, Arabic is its official language, and Islamic law is the basic source of legislation,” says article two of the Egyptian constitution.

This article has been in the constitution for decades and had only undergone a few amendments, yet it has not really been a source of controversy among Egyptians maybe because they had never felt they had an important part to play in their constitution anyway and to a great extent because the article appealed to the predominantly religious/conservative society that considers Islam an integral part of its culture and that cannot envision its life independent of the daily details associated with it.

However, when the January 25 Revolution ousted the president, the constitution that was in force, and which basically catered to the interests of the regime and paved the way for the bequest of power, was suspended, and a new one that should reflect the democracy Egypt is supposed to become was to be written that things took a different turn.

It was then that people started to be alarmed.

“They will change the constitution. What will happen to article two?”

“There is no way article two will be removed? Are we going to become a Western or a secular country or what?”

“If that’s what the revolution is bringing, then we were better off with the former regime.”

“We will die for article two if that’s what it takes.”

When a referendum was held on the amendment of some articles—article two not included—the majority of those who voted “yes” did so because they feared if the amendments were rejected and an entirely new constitution were drafted, article two would be removed.

Several Islamic preachers even started propagating that churches incited Copts into voting “no” in order to have article two removed.

“Are Copts going to rule the country?” they yelled at cheering crowds, and after the “yes” vote scored more than 70 percent, they celebrated the “victory of Islam,” and in a series of menacing statements stressed that “the country is ours and those who don’t like it that way should pack and leave.” As the tone got more belligerent and a declaration of war seemed to be looming in the horizon, I couldn’t help wondering what it is in article two that makes it look like its removal is equivalent to abolishing Islam altogether.

I can understand why Copts would feel insecure—and they indeed do—if article two stays in an atmosphere where radical Islam has resurfaced after the fall of the regime that repressed it for years, and I can understand if Muslims in the West feel threatened by a similar article that is likely to rob them of their rights as a religious minority. I can also understand when Egypt’s liberals and seculars voice their concern about how this article might be abused with the new changes in the political scene and the possibility of an Islamist majority in parliament. Yet, I really fail to grasp the reasoning behind this obsessive fright that has seized Muslims as if their lives depended on those couple of lines in a text that has a lot of much more alarming articles and which are really much more critical as far as where the country is going is concerned.

Muslims in Egypt are the majority. That is a statistical fact. Practicing, pious, or conservative Muslims are the mainstream. That is a social fact. Different aspects of Islamic life—the way Ramadan and other religious occasions go hand in hand with national holidays, the call for prayers that resonate from the thousands of minarets that adorn the country’s landscape, the veil that is now almost the official costume of more than 80 percent of Egyptian women, and the Quran you hear in every store you go into and every cab you take—have become part and parcel of the overall character of Egypt.

How on earth would the removal of one article in the constitution eliminate all that so that you wake up one morning and find your family praying in a Hindu temple or your son getting dressed for his Bar Mitzvah or the whole population receiving the flesh and blood of Jesus when they are supposed to break their fast with milk-soaked dates? Not that I wouldn’t love to see Egypt becoming this kind of haven for all sorts of religions and cultures, but this is simply not the case and won’t be in the coming couple of centuries.

So, if Muslims have all what it takes to feel at home in Egypt, why do they bother about stating that Islam is the official religion? How do they expect to be harmed or have their faith undermined if this article is removed or replaced by another that asserts equality between citizens regardless of beliefs? Why do they act as if one of the proposed amendments includes replacing “Islam” by “Christianity” and “Islamic laws” with “the rules of the Coptic Orthodox Church ecclesiastical council”? For me this is a very peculiar case of the majority being afflicted by the insecurities generally—and logically—attributed to the minority and totally subverts the hypothesis that it is the majority’s responsibility to abate the fears of the minority and not the other way round. If Muslims have the privilege of numbers, why do they feel reluctant to give groups deprived of this privilege another one in return?

Some claim it is about identity, and I am sorry to say that I don’t buy that. Egypt’s identity is comprised of all religions and cultures that made it what it is now and in this sense overlooking the country’s Coptic heritage is a cultural and ethical more than a religious crime. Plus how exactly is it important to decide the identity of a people—if that can be decided at all—in their constitution? Does this also imply that in a constitution you can have the official race or the official skin color? In other words, is the job of the constitution setting the principles of citizenship or promoting an exclusionist ideology that makes one group feel superior and other groups feel inferior? As for those who say that neither Christians nor seculars should worry because Islamic laws will protect their rights, don’t you find this a bit patronizing? I believe that the concept of offering protection stands in stark contrast with the concept of equality since it establishes a tyrannical majority that patronizes the “weak” minority and constantly reminds it of how grateful it should be.

True there are countries that mention religion in their constitution, but how is that done and how does that affect the daily and/or political life of their citizens? For example, the Argentinean constitution states that “The Federal Government supports the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion,” yet according to a Supreme Court ruling, Roman Catholicism is not the official religion of the state and the article of the constitution that required the president to be Roman Catholic was removed. “Catholic” here has, therefore, become a symbolic term that rather refers to the country’s heritage and the affiliation upon birth of the majority of its population, but does not entail the application of religious laws nor does it imply the interference of the church in state matters. Egypt is different because saying that Islam is the religion of the majority is one thing and establishing it as the official religion and making its laws the main source of legislation is another thing. In the latter, there is an obvious preference on of one group over the other and the threat of having this article come to full force in case an Islamist government comes to power will never be dissipated. Think of why the Islamist government of Turkey is unable to discriminate against seculars or religious minorities even though it might have gladly done that had it ruled Egypt. The answer is pretty simple: the Turkish constitution will never allow Erdogan, despite his neo-Ottoman rhetoric, to do so.

I believe that this keenness to maintain the existing balance of power in its exact position without any willingness to add one single ounce in the other party’s weighing pan is indicative of a peculiar mixture of tyranny and weakness. Those people who resist removing or amending article two are the same who suffered under the yoke of a repressive regime that left them with no source of power other than religion, and maybe having this written in an official document affirmed the existence of this power and endowed them with the self-esteem they had lost in all other fields of life.

The confidence they imbibed by virtue of being the nation’s proclaimed “strong” and which they always hoped would make up for other failures lent them a despotic authority that not only led them to hold on firmly to this one asset, but also to reject any attempts of sharing it with others. They, therefore, adopted the methods of the tyrants that had been ruining their lives for years and proved the theory that a dictatorship produces dictatorial citizens, each practicing his/her own version of dictatorship whenever opportunity permits.

If this era in Egypt’s history is one of liberation from dictatorship, let us not focus on the external dictatorship that is already gone now. Let us instead look for the dictator inside each of us and stage another little revolution. If those individual revolutions manage to topple our internal regimes, we will suddenly realize how foolish we were engage in endless bickering over a matter that doesn’t matter. Think of article two of the constitution as the religion slot in the national ID card—another controversy that stays unresolved till the moment. Will you stop being Muslim if the word is removed from your identification documents that are basically meant to prove that you are Egyptian? Think of the answer and when you find it, apply it to the constitution and liberate yourself once and for all from all those prejudices that have done nothing except ruin a country, which had once been a beacon of tolerance, peace, and coexistence.

(Sonia Farid Ph.D. of Al Arabiya teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: [email protected])