What Egypt’s Christians Think of Hastily Completed Constitution

What Egypt’s Christians Think of Hastily Completed Constitution

Withdrawal of church representatives failed to force compromise.

Jayson Casper in Cairo (Article appeared in Christianity Today)


Addressing the nation in a televised interview Thursday, President Mohamed Morsi welcomed the sudden completionof Egypt’s draft constitution after months of gridlock.

Amid public outcry against his decision last week to grant himself immunity from judicial review, Morsi praised the constitution’s speedy completion as a necessary step in order to end the nation’s transition to democracy and reestablish separate executive, legislative, and judicial authority.

He also dismissed questions about the legitimacy of the document, especially given the withdrawal of Christian and many liberal members of the assembly drafting it.

“The withdrawal of the church from the constitutional assembly is nothing to worry about,” Morsi said. “It’s important to me that they be part of it, but not to worry.”

“We did not mean to stop everything by withdrawing,” said Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt and a former member of the constitutional assembly. “Only to show our distaste.”

While most articles in the constitution suffered little controversy, the Islamist-dominated assembly limited or qualified previously guaranteed personal freedoms. It also tinged the document with a religious flavor, assuring law and liberty are compliant with shari’ah. (A summary of the new religion-related articles can be found here.)

Baiady has no objection to preserving the controversial Article 2—which establishes the principles of shari’ah as the main source of Egyptian legislation. (In the past, the Supreme Constitutional Court has acted as arbiter to interpret these principles very broadly.) Yet a new addition (Article 219) specifically defines shari’ah according to traditional methods of jurisprudence crafted in the early centuries of Islam. This does not compel a legal return to the Middle Ages, but does require more complicity with the heritage, as opposed to amorphous “principles,” of shari’ah law.

This development troubles Baiady. “But I don’t want to concentrate only on one article.”

Instead his focus is on Article 4, which shifts shari’ah interpretation away from the Supreme Constitutional Court entirely. Instead, it requires lawmakers to consult senior scholars at Cairo’s Al-Azhar—one of Sunni Islam’s top centers of learning—on all matters pertaining to religion.

“Both the church and Al-Azhar should be under the state and not have a supervisory role above it,” Baiady said. “I respect the Grand Imam, but I do not want him to have authority over the state and its laws.”

Article 3 enshrines the right of Egypt’s Christians and Jews to manage personal and religious affairs according to their own religious laws. The article also gives them independence in choosing their leaders.

Though this addition appears to support Christians, Baiady is not pleased. “We should have said ‘non-Muslims’ have this right,” he said. “Even if this gives us our rights, it comes at the expense of others. It also adds nothing we did not have before.”

Jews and Christians previously benefitted from this allowance in Egypt’s regular legal codes. But with the current focus on shari’ah—which guarantees the privilege—these rights are upgraded into the constitution.

Similarly, freedom of religion is not universal. Article 43 limits the right of religious practice and building houses of worship to the “heavenly” [Abrahamic] religions alone.