The Role of Religion in New Egypt

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"I am Egyptian"

Egyptians will eventually have to address the complicated role that religion will play in the “new” Egypt, but for now the issue seems to have been put on hold. Although religious tolerance (at the societal level) and democracy were major revolutionary themes, officially dealing with the relationship between the state and religion was not. Given the absence of both Muslim Brotherhood radicalism and major reforms to the religious articles of the constitution the status quo will likely continue, at least in the short-term. Even in the longer-term, I do not believe that the revolution will result in a rapid secularization like the one experienced by Turkey under Ataturk, or cause Egypt to fall prey to Islamic factions.

Muslim Brotherhood
Since its founding in 1928 the Muslim Brotherhood has been a major opposition group within Egypt, despite being officially banned since 1954 following an accusation that the group organized an assassination attempt on President Gamal Abd al-Nasser. Early on, the Brotherhood and the government exchanged violence, most notably in the late 1940s when Brotherhood members assassinated the Egyptian Prime Minister. In return government supporters killed the Brotherhood founder, Hassan Al-Banna. However, over the decades, the violence has become increasingly one-sided.

Under the Nasser regime thousands of Brotherhood members were imprisoned, tortured and even killed. Although the group was tolerated to a larger extent under Sadat, and during the beginning of the Mubarak regime, the government has generally portrayed it as being radical and violent. This vilification led the West, and many Egyptians, to believe that the only alternative to the Mubarak regime was radical Islam. This sentiment can be seen in the statements of at least one young Egyptian named Mahmoud, who during the revolution said, “we are not ready for the Muslim Brotherhood to take charge of our affairs in the name of creating an Islamic state.”

The revolution has begun to break these stereotypes, revealing a more moderate Muslim Brotherhood than many expected. It is becoming clear that radical Islam will not come from the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. As Dr. Nehad Heliel, an Alexandrian and director of the Middlebury College School in the Middle East, put it “everyone is noticing that the Islamic Brotherhood is not as strong as we all thought they were.”  Her and Dr Ashraf Mansour, a professor at the University of Alexandria, went on to explain that Muslim Brotherhood members have been extremely civil and welcoming throughout the revolution, even when they thought Nehad, an unveiled Muslim woman, was Christian. One Brotherhood member even led Nehad (still unveiled) in Friday prayers, in the men’s section. The symbolism of this gesture of acceptance cannot be overestimated.

Historically, the Brotherhood has proved that they have at least “embraced the procedures of democracy,” such as in the 2005 parliamentary elections when Brotherhood members won twenty percent of the total seats running as independent candidates ( The group even took part in the most recent (November, 2010 elections), despite the Mubarak regime’s attempts to reduce their influence through a shortening of the campaign window, intimidation of the electorate, and bribery. These tactics successfully reduced the number of Brotherhood controlled seats to one.

In spite of these difficult experiences with “democracy”, the Brotherhood has continued to show a commitment to democratic principles, indicating that they will make a restrained entrance into official public life.  After the revolution they announced that they will not put forward a candidate for President, and it is widely understood that they will only contest thirty percent of the seats in parliament. Overall, the Muslim Brotherhood has been an active promoter of democracy, which should alleviate Western fears that they are planning to move Egypt toward radical Islam.

The Supreme Military Council, which now runs the country, has taken the first step to address the constitution with the formation of a review committee. This eight-member committee is considered to consist of mostly neutral scholars, with the following three being particularly note-worthy:

– Tareq el-Bishri (committee chair): a well respected retired senior judge, and prominent intellectual. He held left leaning political views in his youth but has since gravitated toward a moderate brand of Islamism.

– Maher Samy Youssef: also a judge and the only Coptic Christian.

– Sobhi Saleh: a former member of Parliament who is a prominent figure of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has twice been arrested by the Mubarak regime, once in a 2003 roundup of Brotherhood leadership, and then again for three days during the revolution.

The path towards secularization leads through this constitution committee, but so far the focus has been on democratic reform rather than religion. The committee is working with the 1971 Sadat constitution, which has been amended three times since then (in 1980, 2005, and 2007). So far the Supreme Military Council has asked the committee to review articles 76, 77, 88, 93, 179 and 189, which relate to the rule of law and democratic procedures.

It turns out that the committee will not be addressing the religion issue at all. On Sunday, it was announced that the committee will leave the following two contentious religious articles untouched:

-Article Two: ”Islam is the Religion of the State. Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).”

– Article Five: “The political regime of the Arab Republic of Egypt is based upon the multi-party system within the framework of the basic principles and components of the Egyptian society stipulated by the Constitution. Political parties shall be organized by law. The citizens have the right to form political parties according to the law and no political activity shall be exercised or political parties shall be formed on the basis of religion or on discrimination due to gender or race.”

The aim of the committee appears to be getting the country to elections, leaving the religion issue to the new officials. However, keeping these two articles in place raises two concerns. First, Article Two discriminates against the Coptic Christians, who comprise roughly ten percent of the population. By maintaining that Islam is the official religion of the State, any Coptic presidential candidate would be at an inherent disadvantage, by running to become the leader of an Islamic nation. Second, by failing to address Article Five, the political status of the Brotherhood, an issue that has long plagued Egyptian politics, will remain unresolved. The group will either continue to be disallowed as a political party or will need to be deemed secular, neither of which provides a viable solution.

Overall, the constitution does not appear to be headed for the secular overhaul that some Egyptians (certain youth factions in particular) were hoping for. If change does occur it will not be until after a president and a parliament are elected.

Status Quo
Whatever societal changes occur over the coming months with regard to religious tolerance, an official swing toward either radicalism or secularism is unlikely. In the long run, if true democracy does prevail in the upcoming elections, the eclectic make up of the Egyptian people should keep the country from deviating too far from the status quo. However, there are two beneficial changes that will hopefully occur. The first is the political elevation of Coptic Christians and the second is the creation of an official outlet (i.e. a recognized political party) through which the Muslim Brotherhood can express its desires. These changes would go a long way toward moderating religious extremism on all sides, and make for a more stable “new” Egypt.

Written by Tik Root a student at Middlebury College who was studying at the C.V. Starr Middlebury School Abroad in Alexandria from September until the revolution broke out.

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4 Responses to The Role of Religion in New Egypt

  1. Pingback: Shocker – Copts to get the shaft…again?! « the occidental orientalist – المستشرق الغربي

  2. nady says:

    I think that if really Egypt will turn into a real democratic regime and, the civil society will at the end prevail, i think the Christians of Egypt will either loss their fear or even gain the courage to get involved really in the political process of their country,(that they have left for may decades) and thus will play a greater and or determinant roll if not to say( The king maker) . This will be due to mainly their real large numbers around 10 million voters and at the same time their disciplined behavior and their commitments to their churches at the same time their large numbers of highly educated people .That large numbers of voters will be an aim for any party aiming for the power will try to get them on their side

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