Cautious optimism by Egyptian Christians over new constitution

Egypt’s Coptic Christians have borne the brunt of enraged persecution by Muslim Brotherhood supporters and others in Egypt, especially since that country’s “Arab Spring” in January 2011.

Over last weekend, Egypt’s people voted for a revised constitution that seeks to undo a lot of the harm done by President Morsi’s Islamist-slanted version, also voted in on the back of a referendum.

This year’s revision, however, should offer some hope to Egypt’s embattled Christian community. Deposed President Morsi’s 2012 constitution was an open door for his own Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups to set up a Sharia state in one of the largest and most important countries in the Middle East.

Their downfall was that they tried to do it too fast!

The 2012 constitution, written by a panel dominated by Islamists, included a new article (article 219) defining the principles of Sharia which particularly applied in Egyptian law. This would have allowed for greater and greater adherence to extremist laws and penalties being applied under sharia under a Muslim brotherhood president.

Even so, the new constitution was criticised by the ultra-fundamentalist Salafi Nour party for not sticking closer to the principles of Sharia. Opposition to the constitution by Egypt’s judiciary led to their boycott en masse of the referendum that followed.

Certainly, the 2012 constitution was heavily weighted in favour of the Islamists and against women and minority groups, one of the most vulnerable of which was Egypt’s Coptic Christians.

Since the coup that deposed the extremist President Morsi, Egypt has been governed by a military administration that has, to its credit, been attempting to move the country back towards a democratic future (post-Ottoman Egypt had a democratic structure).

This could not be done without reversing the extremist measures put in place by Morsi through his constitution. Thus, Egypt has had its second constitutional referendum in two years.

If Egypt puts into force the amended new constitution she has just voted for, administered by a government untainted by Islamist bias, her Christian minority should have a more hopeful, less persecuted future.

The new constitution, voted for by 98 percent of the voters who turned out, strengthens existing articles that favour human rights and adds a number of new ones that could, in theory, turn Egypt into a beacon of freedoms and rights for all its citizens.

Existing articles concerning the equality of men and women in the eyes of the law are strengthened (article 11) and extend further protections for women against violence and discrimination. Protection for the young and the elderly are also added, as is the right for women to participate in politics.

New article 64 declares it a right for people to practice their religious beliefs and to build places of worship and says that “Freedom of belief is absolute.”

This is particularly significant for the Copts, who have suffered frequent loss of places of worship to rampaging Muslim mobs.

Also significant are new articles (52, 53, 55 & 63) guaranteeing equality of all before the law without discrimination for any reason, outlawing torture or evidence acquired through force, forbidding, “Arbitrary forced displacement of citizens” (something Christians have suffered from) and also making incitement to hatred punishable under the law.

Perhaps the most significant addition of all, however, is the article (93) that enshrines in Egyptian law any and all international human rights agreements ratified by the nation’s government. This would help Egypt align itself with Western human rights principles and add further accountability for upholding them internally.

All this may seem self-evident to our liberal western sensibilities, but parts of Egypt’s new constitution are revolutionary for a country previously governed under the charter put in place under president Anwar Sadat in 1971.

Now seen as the “old constitution”, it declared Egypt to be a “Socialist democratic state… with a… multi-party system…”. This was later dampened down by the effective dictatorship of the repressive president Mubarrak, who succeeded Sadat following his assassination for signing a peace agreement with Israel.

So, as 2014 develops, Christians should find themselves freer and less persecuted and Egypt couldrise higher up the list of nations where human rights are respected and upheld.

Unfortunately “could” and “should” don’t equate to “will” and Egypt has a long history of Muslim persecution of Christians. Human nature being what it is, it will take years of constant legal firmness to change a culture of hate.

The Copts are one of the oldest Christian groupings in the world. They have survived the highs and lows of centuries under different rulers, from the tyrannical to the (relatively) liberal. As ordinary Egyptians, who make up around 10 percent of the population and take a full part in society, they deserve a break and an opportunity to be treated equally and fairly.

I hope that the next elected Egyptian regime will realise the positive potential in their new constitution and, furthermore, ensure the rule of law right down the line to individuals and families in the farthest reaches of the country.

If this happens the future will be much brighter for the Copts, but if nothing much changes on the ground I fear for the long-term future of the Christian faithful in Egypt.


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