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Constitutional Confusion and Contusions in Egypt

The constitution, as important as it may be, is not a cure for the genetic illnesses of the states of the Middle East.
Egypt’s constitution committee meeting back in November.

Egypt’s constitution committee meeting back in November.

Below, we will examine some of the articles of the proposed constitution from the point of view of each one of the sectors, which, as noted above, are divided broadly into three groups. The reality is far more complex, because each one of the three sectors is composed of sub-sectors, who disagree with each other on most matters.

We will preface this discussion by saying that there are more than a few Salafis who view the constitution in a negative light as a matter of principle, because the constitution is a human creation, while the true and only constitution of a Muslim is the Qur’an, of heavenly creation. According to this approach, the law of a Muslim state must be the Islamic Shari’a; therefore all laws that are legislated by any human legislative body are null and void in principle. The legislator must be a religious figure who acts with religious, not civil authority: These Salafis are not considered to be participants in the argument over the constitution, because from their point of view it cannot exist.

The first article of the constitution wins universal approval of the delegates: “The Arab Republic of Egypt is an independent and sovereign state, unified and indivisible, whose regime is democratic. Also winning general approval of the legislators is the statement that the Egyptian people is a part of two nations: the Arab and the Islamic, and it is proud to be part of the Nile Valley and the continent of Africa, and its Asiatic continuation, and of its positive contribution to human culture.”

The problems begin in article two: “Islam is the religion of the state, Arabic is the official language and the principles of Islamic Shari’a are the main source of legislation.” There are a few explosive issues in this article. The first is that Islam is the religion of the state. According to the religious perspective, this statement is essential, but it is in contradiction with subsequent clauses of the constitution that state that every citizen of Egypt is equal to every other, because according to Islam, a Christian does not have equal rights to those of a Muslim, and a woman does not have equal rights to those of a man. A second explosive issue is the statement that the basis of legislation is “the principles of Shari’a” and not Shari’a itself. The word “principles” is a general word, not well defined, and there is disagreement as to its meaning. “Principles of Shari’a” is not religious law, and therefore they are merely vague assumptions. According to the Salafi perspective, the use of the term “principles” is intended to limit the practical influence of religious Islamic law to matters of personal status, mainly marriage and divorce.

The statement that “Arabic is the official language” of Egypt excludes the Nubian minority in south central Egypt, who do not speak Arabic.

The third article: “For Christian and Jewish Egyptians, the principles of their religious law are the main source of legislation for managing private, religious matters, as well as the method of choosing their spiritual and religious leaders.” This article is problematic in the eyes of the religious Muslims, because it grants legal validity to Jewish and Christian religious law, while Islam sees these religions as “din al-Batil” – “invalid religions” or “false religions.”

The fourth article is also problematic because it states that the (institution) of al-Azhar is an independent and all-encompassing Islamic authority (there are no other bodies with religious authority), manages its own affairs (no one can appeal its rulings), and its role is to spread the call to Islam, religious studies and the Arabic language in Egypt and the world. The opinion of the Committee of Religious Scholars in al-Azhar will be taken into account in all matters that are connected with Islamic religious law. The sheikh of al-Azhar is independent and cannot be removed, and the law states how he will be chosen from among the Committee of Scholars. The state will fund the expenses of al-Azhar in such a way that will enable it to achieve its goals, and all of this will be settled by law.

The main problem with this article is that the ruling on all matters of religion, including those that deal with administration of public and state matters, are subject to the consideration of al-Azhar. This means that al-Azhar has the authority to interfere in matters of state, and this is not acceptable to the secular sectors. The Salafis do not see al-Azhar as the beacon which guides their steps either, because they feel that al-Azhar collaborates with the regime. It was also true in the days of Mubarak and his predecessors when the role of al-Azhar was to create religious rulings that were suitable to the agenda of the regime, and not to true Islam. The salaries of the al-Azhar people are paid from the state, meaning the coffers of the regime, so there is the suspicion that the religious rulings they issue reflect the opinion of the regime. The exclusive religious authority that the constitution grants to al-Azhar contradicts the view held by many Salafis, who accept only their own rulings.

About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.


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