Will removal of religious identity from ID cards stop discrimination in Egypt?

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

The controversy over including religion in state-issued Egyptian IDs is far from new and so is the attempt to issue a law that omits this slot.

The last of these attempts was by MP Ismail Nasr al-Din who prepared a draft law and secured the signatures of 200 of his fellow MPs, 140 more than the number required to submit a proposal for discussion. The law is based on the modification of article 49 of the Egyptian Civil Code.

The article, included in chapter 7 that regulates the issuing of national identification cards, states that “executive regulations determine the information required for issuing an ID card” and Nasr al-Din proposes adding, “provided that this information does not include religion.”

According to the draft law, citizens are required to issue an official document stating their religion, when they get married, to be submitted to the relevant authorities.

The proposal seems to have garnered considerable support within the House of Representatives even if not by a majority, but this does not in any way guarantee that Nasr al-Din’s argument will defeat the one promoted by the opposing camp.

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In the memo he submitted with the draft law, Nasr al-Din noted that the main purpose of the proposal is instilling a culture of dealing with people on the human not the sectarian level. “The religion of any citizen should not affect his future in any way. Why, for example, should I know a person’s religion when he/she applies for a job,” he wrote.

For Nasr al-Din, the recurrence of sectarian-based violence in Egypt demonstrates growing religious fanaticism, hence necessitates emphasizing equality, which, he noted, is already granted by the constitution.

“The draft law is in line with article 1 of the constitution, which states that the Egyptian system is founded on citizenship and the rule of law, and article 53, which states that all Egyptian citizens are equal and cannot be discriminated against on any basis,” he wrote.

Nasr al-Din added that several entities in Egypt have already removed religion from their official documents. “These include Cairo University and the engineers, lawyers, and journalists syndicates.”

Objections on record

Despite the support he got from 200 MPs, many others expressed their objection to the draft law. While admitting that the main purpose of the law is to eliminate discrimination, MP Ihab Mansour said problems are bound to happen in cases of marriage and divorce.

“Discussions with several relevant parties such as religious scholars need to take place to figure out ways of dealing with such problems before discussing the law,” he said. MP Abdel Moneim al-Eleimi argued that the law itself is discriminatory.

“The Egyptian constitution already recognizes the three Abrahamic religions,” he said, adding that Nasr al-Din should attach to the draft law a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court stating that including religion in ID cards is against the constitution.

According to MP Omar Hamroush, the draft law is against the constitution and the law since it is bound to create unrest across the nation. “The problems this law will cause will obstruct the development of the Egyptian state. This is the last thing we need in the light of all the challenges we’re already facing,” he said.

Anti-government protestors display a collection of police ID cards and other items they claim were used by pro-government supporters, in Cairo, on Feb. 3, 2011. (File photo: AP)
Anti-government protestors display a collection of police ID cards and other items they claim were used by pro-government supporters, in Cairo, on Feb. 3, 2011. (File photo: AP)

Lawyer and member of the National Council for Human Rights Hafez Abu Saeda said that declaring one’s religion is in itself a human right and religion is part of a citizen’s identity. “That is why many names have religious significance and this applies to both Christians and Muslims in Egypt,” he said.

“Hiding your religion makes no sense. What is important is acknowledging difference and accepting it.” Abu Saeda argued that a civilian state is not one that denies religion, but rather embraces all religions and does not discriminate on religious basis. “This is the same a gender equality,” he noted.

“We cannot deny that there are men and women, but we make sure they are treated equally and offered equal opportunities.” Abu Saeda added that removing religion from ID cards is expected to do more harm than good owing to the chaos that might ensue.

Member of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs Abdel Ghani Hendi noted that there is a difference between religion as a means of identification and as a belief.

“The belief remains untouched as the constitution says, but including this piece of information is an organizational and not a religious matter,” he said. “It is called an identification card, which means it should include everything about me. Actually, it should include more information such as the blood type.”

Hendi argued that the demand to cross out religion would have been valid had the inclusion of religion caused any problems or incidents of discrimination.

Imitating the West

“I believe we should stop trying to imitate the West as if we want to gain more points to look good.”

Not all religious scholars, however, share the same view. Sheikh Mazhar Shahine, the imam of Omar Makram mosque in Tahrir Square, supports the draft law. “ID cards in Egypt were first issued during the era of King Fouad and they included name and physical traits such as eyes, hair, and complexion,” he said, adding that “religion was only introduced in 1955.”

Shahine argued that before 1955, all forms of interaction, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance, went smoothly without adding that part to ID cards and added that in all cases religion is mentioned in birth and death certificates to avoid any confusion in issues in which religion matters.

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“Also there are people who might discriminate on religious basis whether we like it or not and in order to make sure this doesn’t happen we better remove religion altogether.” Coptic journalist Youssef Sidhom noted that removing religion from ID cards is an extremely positive step yet is not enough to stop discrimination.

“This is simply because a large number of Muslims and Christians are recognized through their names,” he wrote. “It is a very good start and it happened before with passports but it needs to be complemented with a change in the general culture.”

According to Sidhom, Christians in Egypt should not just be content with this step without taking further actions.

“Christians have to work on strengthening their ties with Muslims and increasing interaction on different levels in daily life because this is the main defense against fanaticism and intolerance.”