Safwat al-Baiady: Negotiating Religion in the Constitutional Committee

Safwat al-Baiady

Safwat al-Baiady

From my recent article at Arab West Report, continuing a series of interviews with members of Egypt’s constitutional Committee of Fifty. Safwat al-Baiady is the head of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, and lent his experience in how the committee’s religious members came to agreement on contentious articles. Here is his perspective on Article 3, giving Christians and Jews the right to refer to their religious laws in personal affairs and religious organization:

But one part of society that was not represented by the committee, Bayādī stated, were the Baha’īs. He personally argued that Article 3, guaranteeing Christians and Jews the right to govern themselves according to their own religious laws, should be phrased instead for ‘non-Muslims’. This wording won the majority in the ‘fundamentals of the state’ subcommittee on which he served, with ten votes for and only four against – the representatives of the Azhar and the Salafi Nour Party.

But when the subcommittee sent the article to the writing committee, it came back changed. Bayādī said the Azhar’s Muhammad Abd al-Salam, consultant for the Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyib, led the charge against this wording. Bayādī said he was very mad, and told the committee their job was in wording, not to change the meaning of the article and throw the majority outside. They responded they were also members of the full committee and had the right to their own ideas. In the end, Bayādī admitted that perhaps the change was wise, as it would not be good to upset the religious elements in society who look to the Azhar and Salafi scholars. After all, they want people to vote for the constitution.

In the committee, Bayādī said, everyone had to compromise, getting something and leaving something. This is the way to resolve differences, and he described an article the church left behind. Having already received a number of useful articles, which will be described below, Bishop Antonious of the Coptic Catholic Church proposed an article granting approval and independence to the Egyptian Council of Churches. Formed after the revolution, the council had been operating but had no official recognition. Majority approval was easy in the subcommittee, but after submission to the writing committee it was removed. Bayādī said that no one opposed early on because it did not concern them as non-Christians. But upon further deliberation committee members felt they had already received enough attention in the constitution. ‘Amr Mūsa pledged his help to get the president to give his official approval, which pleased Bayādī. But what the president gives he can take away, and if in the constitution it would be harder to revoke.

Baiady also described the battle to remove the old Article 219 interpreting sharia law, as well as the article assigning a specific age of childhood. He gives a grammar lesson in Article 64 on establishing places of worship, and describes the shenanigans over securing ‘appropriate representation’ for Christians in the coming parliament. Here is an excerpt on the fight over the term ‘civil’, and to what it should apply:

The final controversy Bayādī described came at the time of the vote itself. The preamble of the constitution declared Egypt to be a modern democratic state with civil governance. This last phrase – civil governance – was very difficult to achieve, and even Bishop Bula, to Bayādī’s surprise and anger, said he did not care for the word ‘civil’. The Salafīs in chief opposed this designation, and the Grand Mufti found the proper compromise when he supported ‘civil governance’. Everyone clapped, and the matter was over.

Or so it seemed. At the final vote Mūsá read ‘civil government’. Muna Dhū al-Fukkār, who was elected as his assistant, spoke out to correct and help him. But the vote took place and passed. According to the official transcript, of which he showed a copy, Mūsá afterwards stated that he misspoke and meant ‘governance’. But the next day, at a dinner function with the army, they received the official copy of the constitution with the words ‘civil government’. Bishop Antonious especially was very upset, saying the text was changed. Some say it doesn’t matter, Bayādī related, for government can mean the whole system of government and not just the ministers. In any case, he does not want to spoil the whole bouquet because of the insertion of one thorn, but he does believe it was meant to be changed, and not simply a mistake, due to opposition to what the mufti proposed.

For this and more, please click here to read the full report at Arab West Report.

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