Sharia Article in the Egyptian Constitution

"Religion is for God, the Homeland is for All"

In Egypt, debate is raging about the amendment of Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution. According to this article, Islam is the official state religion, and the Sharia is the main source of legislation. Samir Grees has been following the debate

Egyptian protester carrying a child, holding a crescent and a cross made of polystyrene (photo: picture alliance/dpa)
For many Egyptian intellectuals and activists, the call for an amendment of Article 2 of the Egyptian Constitution is "the most important since the revolution and the guarantee for a democratic society," as the artist Youssef Limoud puts it

​​The scene was remarkable, and for many it was worrying too. On 18 February, the "Friday of Triumph", about two million Muslims prayed together on Tahrir Square. Prayers were led by the well-known TV personality Sheikh Yussuf al-Qaradawi ho has close links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Is he a new Khomeini leading a new Islamic revolution?

Definitely not; al-Qaradawi is not a leader, nor was the 25 January revolution in Egypt an Islamic revolution. Nevertheless, the scenes that day were indeed "Islamic", especially when al-Qaradawi spoke to the masses after prayers.

His supporters prevented everyone else from stepping up to the microphone to speak to the crowd. Wael Ghonim, one of the leaders of the revolution, and journalist and activist Hussein Abdel-Ghani were prevented from addressing those gathered in the square. Was it a demonstration of power by the Muslim Brotherhood?

Now that the revolution is over, the worry that the Muslim Brotherhood could assume power in free elections in Egypt is moving many people to call for secularism to be anchored in the constitution as a guiding principle.

For this reason, many intellectuals, artists, and pro-democracy activists are demanding that Article 2 of the current constitution be abolished. This article names the Sharia, the normative authority for Islamic legislation, as the only source of law.

"Religion is for God; the homeland is for all"

One of those people in favour of the removal of this article from the constitution is the writer Edwar al-Kharrat. His works have been translated into many languages, including English. "The system of rule and religion must be kept clearly separate;" says the 84-year-old. "The old motto of Egypt's liberal era still applies: religion is for God, the homeland is for all."

Miral al-Tahawi (photo: Unionsverlag)
Miral al-Tahawi is one of a number of artists and intellectuals who have signed a declaration calling for the abolition of Article 2

​​Miral al-Tahawi, a young, successful writer who currently lives in the United States where she teaches Arab literature, has signed a declaration in which a large number of writers and artists call for the removal of this article. "The reaction to this declaration shows that the Arab peoples are not at present willing to accept this," says al-Tahawi.

Those who signed the declaration were snidely dismissed as "supporters of secularism" whose sole aim was to "fight the Islamic identity of the country". In an interview with Qantara.de, al-Tahawi refers to the religiousness of Americans and points out that "nevertheless, all citizens in the USA are equal before the law, regardless of the colour of their skin or their religion".

For the visual artist Youssef Limoud, the calls for an amendment of the article are "the most important since the revolution and the guarantee for a democratic society". As a Muslim, he says, this article affords him preferential treatment. "But what about my Coptic neighbours? And what about those who are not religious?"

"Yes, but not now"

The novelist Mekkawi Said supports the removal of Article 2, "but not now, because that would at present lead to a split in the political forces".

This opinion is shared by the writer Ezzat al-Qamhawi. "The abolition of this article will not lead to disputes with the Muslim Brotherhood, but with a large part of society." The constitution, he continues, is provisional – as is the government – and the article would have to be either amended in the permanent constitution or removed from it altogether.

Mekkawi Said (photo: DW/Samir Grees)
Novelist Mekkawi Said is in favour of the abolition of Article 2, "but not now, because that would currently lead to a split in the political forces"

​​"The change is necessary, but the time is unsuitable," says Emad Gad, vice-director of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "It is impossible to found a civil state if this article continues to exist. It is the representatives of the Military Council, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the members of the old guard who are raising this question at this time in order to divide people and to divert attention away from the people's main demands."

The repeal of the emergency laws, the formation of a new government with none of the members of the old regime, and the release of all political prisoners is, Gad says, the priority at the moment.

This is confirmed by the renowned political scientist Nabil Abdel-Fattah. He explains how the article came to be in the current constitution in the first place: "The former president Anwar al-Sadat wanted to curry favour with representatives of the religious movements in society," he says. When amending Article 77 of the Constitution, Sadat made a concession to the Islamic opposition, something Abdel-Fattah considers a "criminal act".

After all, this amendment meant that there was no longer a limit to the amount of time the president could remain in office. Although Sadat himself did not benefit from this amendment – he was assassinated a short time later by the Islamists he had courted – Article 77 helped his successor, Hosni Mubarak, to stay in power for 30 years until the 25 January 2011 revolution removed him from office.

Samir Grees

© Qantara.de 2011

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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