The future of Egyptian democracy:

Narratives of the Egyptian constitution

posted by Rachel Scott

In The Myth of Religious ViolenceWilliam Cavanaugh argues that the assumption that religion is inherently authoritarian, divisive, and predisposed to irrational violence is a myth. This myth has its origins in the so-called “Wars of Religion,” which, he states, did not precipitate the rise of the modern state as is commonly assumed. Rather, he argues that these wars served as a justification for the nascent nation-state, which then used them to assert its power over the church. The church, correspondingly, was either absorbed into the state or relegated to an essentially private realm. It was only through the creation of a distinct private sphere for religion that the divisive properties of religion could be kept at bay—or so it was claimed. The myth of religious violence, propagated by political theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, has been used to legitimize the state’s claim to a monopoly on violence, lawmaking, and public allegiance in the name of Western secular ideals.

Since then, Cavanaugh argues, this myth of religious violence has been used continuously by state-making elites to marginalize certain types of discourse, labeled as religious, while promoting the idea that the unity of the nation-state saves us from the divisiveness of religion. This was illustrated by Tony Blair’s recent statement that religious extremism has become the biggest source of conflict around the world. In this vein, Blair also came out in support of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood “tried to take the country away from its basic values of hope and progress.”

The myth of religious violence was employed to great effect during debates over the Egyptian Constitution of 2012, the delegitimization of which laid important foundations for the military coup of 2013. The constitution was delegitimized—both in terms of its content and in terms of the process by which it was written—by the religious-secular binary that labeled the constitution as religious or Islamist. Such adjectives immediately presented the constitution as authoritarian and at odds with Western human rights standards. Khaled Diab, a columnist in The Guardian, wrote: “Congratulations to all conservative, male Muslims in Egypt. According to the draft constitution, you qualify as the model Egyptian ‘citizen,’ and the state will be there for you all the way to uphold your rights and defend your freedoms.” Statements that women’s equality was absent from the 2012 Constitution—because it was the work of religiously conservative supporters of President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist allies—were plentiful.

The 2012 constitution was also criticized for being against religious minorities because of articles 3 and 43. Article 3 stated that “the principles of Christian and Jewish laws are the main source of legislation for followers of Christianity and Judaism in matters pertaining to personal status, religious affairs and the nomination of religious leaders” and Article 43 stated that: “Freedom of belief is an inviolable right. The state shall guarantee the freedom to practice religious rites and to establish places of worship for the divine religions, as regulated by law.” In addition, parts of Article 4, which stated that the council of senior scholars should be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law, and Article 219, which acknowledged Islamic jurisprudence as basis for legislation, were singled out as leading Egypt in the direction of a religious state, or a theocracy akin to that of Iran. Many Egyptian human rights organizations expressed concern that unaccountable religious scholars would intervene in the work of the elected bodies.

The discourse that was used to criticize the constitution was dominated by references to the religious-secular binary that pitted the Islamist constitution against its theoretical secular—and human rights-oriented—counterpart. The principal problem with such discourse is that it did not define what was meant by “secular,” “civil,” “Islamist,” or “religious.” The binary worked, however, because of common assumptions inherited from the myth of religious violence. This is not to say that the replication of such a myth in different historical contexts means that the relationship between religion and state is the same in those contexts. The relationship between religion and state in Egypt has its own complexities that eschew common assumptions about what a religious or a secular state is. Yet the myth of religious violence enables certain tropes to be applied to varying contexts, with the effect of stifling more nuanced questions and answers about whatever is being described as religious or as secular.

In comparison, the 2014 constitution has been praised for being secular, tolerant, rational, and civil. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies argued that the new constitution was a positive development in citizenship rights broadly defined. It is true that the new constitution looks less “Islamist” in some respects. The contentious section of Article 4 and the whole of Article 219 have been removed. Yet the implications of Article 4 were rather ambiguous, and Article 175 of the 2012 Constitution gave the right to adjudicate the constitutionality of laws and statutes solely to the Supreme Constitutional Court. Article 44, which stated that blasphemy against all prophets is an unconstitutional act, has been removed. Yet the new constitution now has Article 86, which states that “the preservation of national security is a duty, an obligation for all, and a patriotic responsibility,” and Article 237, which obligates the state to fight all types and forms of terrorism. Such clauses should receive equal—if not more—attention for their potentially chilling implications.

With regard to Articles 3 and 43, both articles constitutionally enshrined the principle of the divinely revealed religions as a key part of the relationship between religion and state in Egypt. However, specific limitations on the rights of religions that are not seen as divinely revealed would only come into effect with the passing of particular laws limiting those rights. In addition, the concept of the divinely revealed religions has considerable continuity with earlier Egyptian legal history. It is interesting that these articles have not been removed. More complicating still, the Coptic Orthodox Church did not seek to abolish Article 3 in a memorandum released in late July 2013. The Church’s representative on the constitutional amendment committee requested that it remain (note that Article 3 is opposed by the Coptic group, the Maspero Youth Union). While there were some questions as to whether the article should be amended to include non-Muslims—and it is not easy to discern precisely what particular position the three church representatives took while also contending with the positions of al-Azhar and the Salafis—there is evidence that the three Coptic churches did not strongly demand the addition of non-Muslims and certainly did not support the article’s abolition. In addition, the only amendment to Article 43 that was requested did not do away with the concept of the divinely revealed religions but simply stated that freedom of belief is absolute as opposed to guaranteed (this is now Article 64 of the 2014 Constitution).

The 2014 constitution was praised for making women’s rights a primary issue. Yet, writing prior to the issuance of the new constitution, Ellen McLarney argued that the 2012 Constitution was the first to explicitly establish—without qualification—“equality and equal opportunities for all citizens, men and women, without distinction, favoritism, or partiality, in rights or duties.” She notes the liberal aspirations of the “Islamist” Constituent Assembly and argues that the current constitution’s attitude towards women represents less a break and more a continuity with previous constitutions. The 2012 Constitution called for providing free services for mothers and children, but this was interpreted as “Islamist” because their provision was interpreted as emphasizing women’s role in the home. While Article 11 of 2014 is more expansive on the rights of women and includes a statement concerning the state ensuring appropriate representation of women in the houses of parliament, it also mentions reconciling a woman’s right to work with her duty towards her family, which replicates a clause (article 10) that was criticized in the 2012 Constitution.

One might question the efficacy of comparing individual clauses with one another in isolation from the constitution as a whole. Indeed, when the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies stated that this constitution is better for “citizenship,” it was because it isolated clauses relating to minority rights from the constitutions broader concepts of rights and citizenship. So when the 2012 Constitution was accused of favoring Muslim males, it set up two defining binaries: Muslim men and Muslim women, and Muslims and non-Muslims. While these relationships are important, they gloss over other important and intersecting divisions: class, race, and region. In addition, any judgment about the 2014 constitution’s commitment to citizenship must be seen in light of the fact that it expands the powers of the military, which is the institution that can speak for and represent “national security.” It also makes declaring a state of emergency easier, and has expanded the powers of the president while reducing the powers of the People’s Assembly.

One could point out that constitutions are less important than they are often portrayed to be and that there is often little correlation between the text of a constitution and the political reality. Nevertheless, constitution writing has formed an important part of the events in Egypt since 2011. Constitution writing symbolizes a break with the past and is therefore an important source of revolutionary legitimacy. In a deeply divided society such as Egypt, a constitution can be seen as a form of compromise. Yet, as in the case of Egypt, it can also be a tool for delegitimization. Thus, while individual clauses are important and have their own implications, the narratives that surround particular constitutions are, perhaps, equally so. The narrative that the 2012 Egyptian constitution was Islamist and therefore problematic from a human rights perspective was aided by the myth of religious violence. Cavanaugh argues that there would be a number of benefits to retiring the myth of religious violence from respectable discourse. It would free valuable empirical work and help us to see that Western-style secularism is a contingent and local set of social arrangements and not a universal solution. He also argues that it would rid the West of a significant obstacle in understanding the non-Western world, eliminate one justification for military action, and avoid the violence that feeds off of binaries.

But retiring such terms from respectable discourse might be easier said than done. We have a modern need to define the religious and the secular. Hussein Ali Agrama argues that defining a state as secular or religious is, “a question whose persistence, force, and irresolvability expresses the peculiar intractability of our contemporary secularity.” The Muslim Brotherhood itself has used the religious-secular binary as a source of its own legitimacy and authenticity. It has accused the new constitution of secularizing Egypt and eradicating its Islamic identity. However, Egypt—and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular—would benefit from eschewing a conceptual frame that constructs the constitution and political actors as either secular or religious, and has much to gain from talking of an opposition between authoritarian and non-authoritarian institutions. Or, in the spirit of the 2011 revolution, an opposition between institutions and procedures that support justice and human dignity, and those that do not. Indeed, the language of religious and secular constitutes a trap into which the Muslim Brotherhood has frequently fallen. For example, when it referred to its concept of a civil, as opposed to religious, state in the decade or so leading up to the revolution in 2011, it was not taken seriously. The lack of a thorough and systematic political platform that addressed the Brotherhood’s ideas about the relationship between religion and state only fueled the organization’s critics. This approach gave the movement considerable flexibility—and there are some indications that it was the Salafis and al-Azhar more than the Muslim Brotherhood that spearheaded Articles 4 and 219—yet it also means that its discourse was unable to transcend the religious-secular binary. Instead, it triggered the fear and anxiety at the heart of our secular modernity about the relationship between religion and state.

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