Is Egypt Going Backward on Religious Freedom?

Article Summary
The draft Egyptian constitution is a step backwards for freedom of religion. Wahid Abdel Meguid documents the changes in Egypt’s constitutional approach to freedom of worship over the past 90 years.

Constitutions are originally and basically designed to protect the weak against the strong, guarantee the rights of the weakest and prevent the strongest from showing off their muscles. The constitution protects the minority from injustice on the part of the majority — if this majority was unjust — and guarantees the rights of vulnerable social groups and those most in need of protection and care.

People discovered during the advanced stages of human history the need to regulate their relationships in a contractual and documented manner. This is how the idea of the constitution — as a document expressing an implicit social contract to protect the weak against the strong in society — emerged. If this purpose is not fulfilled in a document called the constitution, this document cannot be therefore considered a constitution, regardless of the force that imposes it. [In such cases,] while there may be a constitution in name, but in reality there isn’t. 

This was the case in Egypt for decades. Three constitutions were adopted (or even four, if we count the unity constitution of 1958), yet Egyptians didn't feel as though they had a constitution that they could resort to. There were constitutions, but Egypt never was a constitutional state.

Moreover, Egypt will not be a constitutional state in the coming period, unless the new constitution guarantees the rights of all vulnerable groups and protects their freedoms from the injustice and despotism of the strongest — in the event that the strongest was unjust and despotic. Freedom of religion is not an exception in this context. The constitution is not considered a constitution unless it guarantees the free exercise of religion for all. For this reason, overlooking this freedom in the first drafts of the new constitution and limiting it to monotheistic religions is a step backwards, because it was previously guaranteed for everyone in every constitution we have had since 1923.

The proposed constitutional text on the freedom of religion increases the restrictions on this freedom, instead of reducing or eliminating them. Under this version, the freedom of belief became inviolable, after it was previously an absolute right. Furthermore, the free exercise of religion became implicitly limited to adherents of monotheistic religions, who have the right to build places of worship as the law regulates. The constitutional article stipulates that: “The freedom of belief is an inviolable right and the state guarantees the freedom to construct places of worship for monotheistic religions, as it is regulated by the law.”

The only positive side of this article is the freedom to construct places of worship for Christians, who have suffered for too long, after their right to build and restore churches was restricted. This article will be a step forward, if the law — which regulates the establishment of places of worship — does not remove this article.

However, this step forward is countered with two steps backwards. This goes back to downgrading the freedom of belief — which was previously described as ‘absolute’ and is now ‘inviolable’ — and to limiting the free exercise of religion to those who have the right to build places of worship.

This move backwards is dangerous, because it brings us back to the constitution of 1923, which laid the foundation for the freedom of belief and the free exercise of religion, with some reservations that were gradually removed thereafter.

The constitution of 1923 recognized the freedom of religion under articles 12 and 13. The first article stated that the freedom of belief is absolute and the second was limited to the free exercise of religion. [Some had] reservations regarding the sentence ‘respecting customs and traditions’ found in Article 13. These doubts were understandable at the time, given that it was the beginning of a new constitutional life. This was before the meaning and scope of the freedom of religion became known throughout the world, especially given that the article also included non-religious beliefs.

These text articles in the constitution of 1923 remained intact in the draft constitution of 1954, and the constitutions of 1956 and 1964, except that they were merged into a single article. The merge was a step forward, because reservations regarding the free exercise of religion were lifted, after being linked to the respect of the absolute freedom of belief.

The constitution of 1971 achieved even further progress, when reservations regarding the free exercise of religion were removed.  After that, Article 46 stipulated that: “The state guarantees the freedom of belief and the free practice of religion.” However, growing religious intolerance and sectarian strife prevented this freedom from being practiced. It also prevented the state from removing old legal restrictions regarding the building churches and from issuing a modern law pertaining to the construction of places of worship.

However, the fact that this article was never implemented in the constitution of 1971,  requires the adoption of a stronger text that obliges the state to guarantee that the free exercise of religion is respected, unlike what happened by excluding such freedom from the first drafts and bringing it back. This was after tremendous efforts and after linking it to the construction of places of worship. This link allows those who restrain freedoms to prevent some Egyptians from exercising their religion. It is befitting that Egypt issues a constitution in 2012, 2013, or the years that follow, lacking a strong text that protects the free exercise of religion, requires the state to guarantee this freedom is respected, and provides a clear legal framework for the legislator?

Found in: egyptian parliament, egypt

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