It was seemingly impossible to pass the constitutional amendments in Egypt with gaining a public consensus over them. Therefore, there were campaigns for passing them on factional basis. The Copts and women were definitely leading the categories required not only to approve but also support the amendments and consider them a main part of promoting their political status in the society.
In the case of women, there were promises of allocating “a quota” for them in the elected councils to attain their support. In the midst of the debate over the constitutional amendments, the first group of female judges were appointed. The views rejecting this measure among the judicial circles were seemingly beneficial to the government’s attempt to gain women’s support, because the ruler was shown as a one who is seeking progress for women and increasing and deepening their role in the society.
The Copts and the Principle of Citizenship
In the Coptic case, this was more complicated. Seeking the Copts support was based on articles 1 and 5 although both of them have nothing different from 1971 constitution and enacted laws. Article 1 of the constitution is based on the principle of citizenship, and article 5 bans any political activity or establishing political parties on a religious basis or according to a religious source of authority. The former article is already included- in spirit- and more clearer in article 40 that acknowledges equality among citizens regardless of disagreement in religion, gender, color, or race; article 5 was stated in the law of the political parties that bans establishing parties on religious or sectarian bases.
It seems that when he the Muslim Brotherhood spoke about plans for establishing a civil party with a religious source of authority, this “religious source of authority” was added to the constitutional ban on political parties in addition to “religious basis”.
Therefore, the amendments are nothing new for the Copts as much as the content is concerned. What they did was reproducing constitutional texts or drafting new constitutional rules that have been already stated in the currently applied laws. These amendments addressed the traditional worries of the Copts towards the Islamic movement. A wide sector of them were satisfied with banning establishing parties or a political activity on a religious basis. These fears remained because there is no contact between the Copts and the Islamic movement, and due to exerting no effort in the relation between both sides.
It is worth noting that the latest sectarian incidents, particularly Wafaa Qustantine in November 2004, and the crisis of the CD in the Muharram Beik-based Mary Girgis church in Alexandria in November 2005, witnessed a severe criticism from the Islamic movement for both the church and the Egyptian regime, which led to pumping new blood into the new coalition between both sides, the Copts and the Egyptian regime. This was clearly manifested in the pope Shenouda”s frank support to electing president Hosni Mubarak in 2005 presidential elections.
Crisis of the Political Role of the Copts
It is clear that the ceiling of the Coptic aspiration rose to the extent that they reached the second article of the constitution; this was reflected in the statements of Father Morqos, the bishop of Shubra Al Khaymah, and media spokesman of the Egyptian church, when he said that the Copts demand returning the text of the second article of the constitution to its wording before 1980 amendment, according to which the principles of Islamic Sharia became “The” main source not, “A” source of legislation”. This attitude reflected the viewpoint of one bishops, not the church as an institution. It wasn”t discussed inside the clerical hierarchy, and the bishop did not speak about any internal consensus towards the issue. If there had been an internal consensus about it, more other methods would have been adopted to express the church”s attitude other than just delivering press statements.
The reaction of the head of the church was firm . Pope Shenouda declared that the second article isn”t proposed to be amended, and he relieved the bishop of Shubra Al Khaymah from his post as the church media spokesman, especially after he appeared onn a TV show unable to defend the church attitude in the case of George Bebawi. More importantly, the bishop of Shubra Al Khaymah was forced into organizing a popular meeting attended by state officials to confirm that he retreated from his attitude towards the second article, submitting to the official attitude of his religious leadership.
An overall reading of the scene reveals a multi-faced crisis in the political role of the Copts.
1-The Coptic attitude towards the constitutional amendments was restricted to only two articles, which added nothing new as we mentioned before. There was no real Copt reaction, approval or rejection of the constitutional amendments. This was illustrated in the parliamentary figure Georgette Qillini who said in a press statement to the Al-Shar Al-Awsat on March, 26, that the Coptic attitude towards the constitutional amendments is focused on articles one and five.
2-The Copts remained in their narrow sectarian limits. Their view didn”t cross the limits allowed to them politically and socially. The regime dealt with them as “a closed group” that reacts to the constitutional amendments through its comprehensive view, collective mind, and interests. In other words, the Copts turned into ” a political bloc”, steered by a collective view that does not contain all the Coptic entity with its political, cultural and social diversity.
3-As a result of the above mentioned, the Copts became more politically sidelined and isolated, not vice versa, due to the constitutional amendments. There was an official and clerical interest in showing them as ” a political bloc” that supports the regime on a religious, not political, basis. This actually contradicted with the philosophy of amendments that allegedly aim at excluding religion from the political pragmatic exploitation, according to the figures of the regime.
4-Definitely, it was logical that the Copts support any constitutional amendments that back the principle of citizenship, and reinforce the civilian approach in the country, and they aren”t blamed for seeking this trend. However, the problem– I think- lies in doing only this, without giving any interest in joining in the public discussion about the constitution and its articles, specially those related to the interrelation among powers, and the main rights and freedoms of citizens, and be only satisfied with talking around articles one and five, and considering them a source of Coptic support. This turned the Copts, practically speaking, into non-citizen nationals although article one of the constitution speaks about citizenship, and making some constitutional articles concerned with the Copts, and others concerned with Muslims. This actually not true, and it should not stick to the Egyptian collective mind in that way. Citizenship immerges from the real world, not from the constitutional text; this requires from the Copts:
First: Seeking a political society based on democracy, freedom, equality and justice.
Second: Working for resisting all forms of discrimination that may face them because they are Copts; through the full national struggle, the Copts will get to know that the homeland issues must be given priority, and it is only through indulging in them that many sectarian problems can be solved.
The Copts will realize, with their active movement, that their private and important problems will not be solved except within framework of a public and national context. This is through an active participation in the Egyptian public issues and the Coptic private issues, a natural environment for the emergence of the concept of citizenship that will sidelines sectarianism and will expand along with the expansion of the movement of the Coptic citizens on the ground.
Sameh Fawzy is a prominent Egyptian Coptic writer