In the light of David Cameron’s visit to Egypt, Abba Seraphim reflects:
I am very pleased to see the Prime Minister has made it a matter of urgent priority to support the current Egyptian government. I hope he will not fail to address the need for the new constitution to give full equality to all Egyptian citizens, with particular consideration to the way in which Christians have been increasingly marginalised over the last three decades.
Since 14 February, when the Egyptian Constitution was suspended, a Constitutional Review Committee has been charged with the responsibility of formulating a new one which will then be submitted to a referendum. It must be a matter of some concern, however, that already fifteen human rights organisations based in Egypt have made protestations about the choice of Judge Tarek El-Bishry as the chairman of the committee. The judge is well known as a leading proponent of political Islam and it is feared that he is unlikely to be sympathetic to the formation of a new constitution with a secular character.
In 1980 the late President Sadat amended the constitution by adding what is now the second article, which stipulates “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic its official language. Islamic jurisprudence is the principal source of legislation.” This was introduced to appease the Islamicists but it proved fatal both for national unity and for Sadat himself, who was soon after assassinated by the very people he had hoped to appease. Western democratic governments have been quick to hail the recent Revolution but unless it redresses this key issue of inequality the Christians of Egypt will remain at risk. By repealing the second article Islam will suffer no loss to its dignity but will more likely gain the respect of others. A willingness to sacrifice unfair pre-eminence in order to share the rights it enjoys with the disenfranchised has always been the distinguishing mark of civilised and respected governments. During the recent Revolution there were many instances of true national unity with Copts and Muslims working together peacefully and selflesssly for the common good and it was this spirit which earned universal admiration.
“Al-Ahram” newspaper, hitherto the voice of the previous regime, is currently sponsoring an on-line poll to test public opinion on the question of Article 2. Both sides are encouraging their supporters to make their voices heard but this cannot be the authentic voice of democracy as it is not capable of expressing a universal voice, nor is it subject to any adequate supervision to ensure its impartiality. The only poll which is capable of expressing the common mind is a free referendum but even then, the fear in the mind of many is whether the question will even be asked?
The Grand Iman of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, recently warned against any attempt to change the second article of the Constitution, saying it was “not open to change or update. It is among the state constants and any attempt to meddle with it can lead to sectarian strife.” He gave added force to his declaration by asserting that it was “not a statement” but “it is Al-Azhar’s stance.” It is to be regretted that the Sheikh feels it necessary to retain this constitutional carbuncle, something which respected rulers such as Mohammed Ali and Gamel Abdul Nassar never sought to impose, because it undermines the very concept of national unity and is the root cause of sectarian strife.
Egypt is currently a country without leaders but there are many who will aspire to lead a country that is fundamentally tolerant and capable of offering enlightened leadership to the whole region. It is to be hoped that among them will be those who will exhort others to demonstrate their patriotism; not by a narrow desire for hegemony over minorities but by an enlightened vision of national unity that will respect diversity and seek to harness the good will and loyalty of those who have been unjustly sidelined, downtrodden and persecuted when they should have been embraced as brother Egyptians. If this is the outcome of the Revolution, Egypt will earn the respective of all free nations and its people will prosper, but if the Sheikh of Al-Azhar’s blinkered parochialism wins the day, the flame of freedom in Egypt and the whole region will be quenched for at least another generation.