Minorities and Freedoms in Egypt Constitution


On Saturday, December 1, Egypt President Morsi called all citizens, in and outside Egypt, for a public referendum on the new draft constitution, to be held on 15 December.

The draft constitution, coming in the wake of tensions that followed the decree issued by President Morsi, granting him sweeping powers, has also prompted widespread protests across the country. 

In my opinion, I believe that the draft constitution will, if Egyptians vote in its favor, defend minorities’ rights, responsible freedoms, human respect, and justice. Giving it a fair look, and comparing it to the previous constitutions, I see it paying attention to establishing equality among all citizens irrespective of their faith, cultures, or sects. It affirms social solidarity and supports community morals and values. It respects human values and people dignity.

In the following lines, I will further elaborate on my point by providing some citations from the draft that focus on religious rights of faith communities and basic freedoms. My objective is to present to the readers how I see the Egypt’s draft constitution—one of the products of the peaceful popular January 25th revolution—trying to set a new Egypt on the principles of citizenship, equality, justice, respect, and social solidarity.

Defending Minorities’ Religious Rights

The third article of the Egyptian draft constitution maintains religious communities’ rights to apply their own religious principles in their personal status laws and devotional affairs:

The religious principles of Egyptian Christians and Jews are the main source of legislation for their personal status laws, religious affairs, and the selection of their spiritual leaders.

Many writers used to claim that Egypt’s Islamists—who gained majority in last parliamentary elections—deny rights of religious monitories to apply their own religious rules and rituals. This claim is proved to be groundless by virtue of the above article and many other articles that assure freedom of worship and protection of places for worship for all Egyptians: Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Article 43 states:

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.

The above values that defend religious minorities’ rights are compatible with Islamic and world conventions and laws. It is baseless then for anybody to claim that moderate Muslims—like Egyptians—don’t support religious freedoms and tolerance.

Maintaining Universal Values of Citizenship

Interestingly, Egypt’s draft constitution upholds universal values of citizenship such as equality, respect, and dignity for all citizens irrespective of their faith, cultures, or social classes. In the introductory section that outlines the basic concepts and principles of the draft constitution, it is affirmed that “equality before the law and equal opportunities for all citizens, men and women, without discrimination or favoritism” are guaranteed.

In article 6, the draft constitution assures:

The political system is based on the principles of democracy, shura (mutual consultation), and citizenship values, under which all citizens are equal in rights and duties. … No political party shall be formed that discriminates on the basis of gender, origin, or religion.

Throughout the draft constitution, universal values of citizenship are maintained. This, of course, reflects moderate understating of Islam and its human values.

In a “Muslim state”, all citizens enjoy equal rights and bear same responsibilities. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be on him) and his Companions established good relations with other faith communities living in Madinah, the first Islamic state. There was a large Jewish community as well as some other Arab tribes who had not accepted Islam. The Prophet (peace and blessings be on him) prepared a mithaq (a covenant or a constitution) for organizing good relations between these communities. The covenant of Madinah laid down broad principles on which cordial relations would be established between Muslims and non-Muslims. Protection of life and property, and freedom of thought and of worship were guaranteed. Among the principles of the covenant are:

“The Jews and the Muslims, . . . each group must support the other against anyone who fights the people of this document (covenant of Madinah). Their relationship shall be one of mutual advice and consultation, and mutual assistance and charity rather than harm and aggression . . . Charity and goodness are clearly distinguishable from crime and injury, and there is no responsibility except for one’s own deeds. God is the guarantor of the truth and good will of this covenant. This covenant shall constitute no protection for the unjust or criminal.” (See Sirat Ibn Hisham, pp. 110-111)

Freedoms Guaranteed

Egypt’s draft constitution protects freedoms that serve individuals’ and the society’s benefits. In the introductory section of the draft constitution, we read:

Freedom is a well-established right. The freedom of citizens shall be upheld in all aspects of life; freedom of opinion, expression and creativity; and freedom in housing, property and travel, out of full belief in such freedom as a divine principle laid down by the Creator in the motion of the universe. God has created humans free. … So, the rights and freedoms of all citizens shall be protected without discrimination.

According to the draft constitution, freedoms of ALL citizens are protected by the law. Moreover, freedoms guaranteed should not pose dangers to citizens’ lives, properties, or morals. So, it is a “responsible and ethical” freedom that is compatible with people’s beliefs, cultures, and public and private benefits.  The following articles, for example, prove that the draft constitution promotes freedoms that preserve people’s private and public benefits:

Article 8: The State guarantees the means to achieve justice, equality and freedom, and is committed to facilitating the channels of social charity and solidarity between the members of society, ensuring the protection of persons, honor, and properties, and working toward providing decent life and sustenance for all citizens; all within the context of the law.

Article 9: The State shall ensure safety, security, and equal opportunities for all citizens without discrimination.

Article 11: The State shall safeguard ethics, public morality and public order, and foster a high level of education and of religious and patriotic values, scientific thinking, Arab culture, and the historical and cultural heritage of the people; all as shall be regulated by law.

In Islam, freedom—including religious freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of action, media freedom, personal freedom, etc.—is supported by a countless number of general and detailed proofs of Shari`ah. For example, the Qur’an emphasizes religious freedom saying, {There is no compulsion in religion} (Al-Baqarah 2: 256) Ethical responsible freedom, which Islam generally supports, is bounded by the general ethics and guidelines of people’s faiths, morals, and values. So, it is not acceptable, for example, to approve insulting or attacking holy books, prophets, or religions under the pretext of freedom of expression or liberties. Also, it is not acceptable to justify harming people or risking public interest of communities for “irresponsible fake freedom” of some individuals.

To conclude, Egypt’s draft constitution supports rights of faith communities without any discrimination between minorities and the majority.  Universal citizenship values are maintained for all.  Freedoms that promote people’s public and private benefits are guaranteed. Therefore, I call on all fair people of the world to read the draft constitution that Egyptians will vote for or against within few days in order to share Egyptians their dreams for a better future.

Dr. Wael Shihab has a PhD in Islamic Studies from Al-Azhar University and is the Head of the Shari`ah and Fatwa sections at the English web site of Onislam.net.  You may reach him at this e-mail address: wael.shihab@onislam.net.

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