Coptic Protest Falls Flat amid Worrying Constitutional Developments

Translation: Bread, Freedom, Social Justice; a Constitution for All Egyptians for the Sake of Egypt; No to the Constituent Assembly

The call went out in the media, Facebook, and by text message: The Maspero Youth Union summons Copts for a mass demonstration at the cathedral to demand the church withdraw from the constituent assembly. In the end, twenty people came. Most were members of the Maspero leadership.

The constituent assembly consists of 100 members chosen by the now dissolved parliament to write the constitution. It represents the second effort, after the first assembly was itself dissolved by the courts for appointing parliamentarians and failing to properly represent the full spectrum of Egyptian society. Many believe the second assembly fails similarly, though a court decision has been postponed.

While the assembly exists in limbo it is continuing its work, along with its delegates chosen by Egypt’s churches. Many liberal politicians have withdrawn in protest of Islamist domination, but unlike the first assembly, the church has not yet followed. The Maspero Youth Union demands they do.

From a Coptic and liberal perspective there are worrying signs. The current wording of the draft keeps the word ‘principles’ concerning Islamic sharia as the main source of legislation. Yet it also designates a religious authority – the Azhar – to define what ‘principles’ means. Though the Azhar is currently understood as a moderate Islamic bulwark, the current wording places religious scholars above elected legislators in crafting law. Furthermore, the Azhar is subject to change in membership; it may not always be moderate.

Furthermore, the current draft defines Egypt as a ‘consultative’ state, alongside other modifiers such as democratic, constitutional, and modern. ‘Consultative’ is not clearly defined, but is derived from an Islamic concept in which people advise the ruler. It may be benign, but was insisted upon by Salafi groups who also argued against inclusion of the modifier ‘civil’.

Additionally, Egypt as a country is defined as ‘part of the Arabic and Islamic nation and tied to the African continent’. The previous constitution labeled Egypt an Arab republic, and mentioning Africa is perhaps a useful recognition in comparison to the neglect of the Mubarak regime. Yet whereas Islam had previously been designated the state religion, labeling Egypt as part of a larger Islamic entity opens possibilities toward wider integration. It certainly tightens the identity of the nation along a particular religious expression.

Perhaps the church has not yet withdrawn its representatives due to the draft inclusion of another phrase: ‘Christians and Jews shall resort to legislation derived from their own religions.’ Though many argue the current constitutional reference to sharia law already grants Christians and Jews this right, others say it is necessary to codify the principle. Is it possible the church has agreed to the other phrasings in exchange for this right of independence vis-à-vis the state?

The Islamist leanings in the initial draft compelled the Maspero Youth Union to pressure the church to withdraw from the constituent assembly. They called for a protest at noon on Friday, following the church service held in the cathedral.

That only twenty people came is an indication in search of an explanation. The Union formed following attacks on churches in the initial months following Mubarak’s resignation. At their height they mobilized thousands to protest the destruction of a church in Upper Egypt, which led tragically to the Maspero massacre at the hands of the military. Since then they have had little public presence, though their spokesmen have continued to comment in the media.

Could high noon heat have kept protestors away? Are the issues in the assembly insufficiently known to the general Coptic community? Is the protest premature? Does a pending court ruling on the assembly’s dissolution persuade most that street politics is unnecessary?

It is uncertain. The result, however, suggests the Union has lost a great deal of its popular legitimacy and mobilizing ability. Anonymous critics present at the demonstration suggested the church was even using the Union in search of provide popular cover for their desire to withdraw, though perhaps all did not know this. If true, and if the Union was playing a requested role, the call for a protest rings hollow. Might the common Copt have noted a lack of authenticity?

In the end, the protest was rather inauthentic. Organizers did their best to shout slogans for the few cameras and assembled media, but there was no audience to rally.

Mina Thabit

‘We came to express our objection to the church continuing in this assembly,’ said Mina Thabit, a founding member of the Maspero Youth Union. ‘These are religious representatives for the church, and do not politically represent the Copts.

‘They do not have the wisdom or experience to deal with this situation. The constitution will wind up being far from the principles of human rights, and represent racism, ethnicity, and discrimination between people.’

Indeed, these are worrying concerns. It is too bad no one came to share them with.

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