New Egyptian Constitution Holds Promise for Copts

After enduring the worst persecution in centuries, a new constitution gives Coptic Christians renewed hope for civil rights and freedom in Egypt, but a lot of work remains.

A woman shows her ink-stained fingers, evidence she has voted in Egypt's constitutional referendum, and holds a poster of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at a Cairo polling booth on Jan. 14.
A woman shows her ink-stained fingers, evidence she has voted in Egypt's constitutional referendum, and holds a poster of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at a Cairo polling booth on Jan. 14. (photo: Ed Giles/Getty Images)

CAIRO — A new day is dawning for Coptic Christians in Egypt, now that the country has voted to approve a new constitution that replaces the Islamist one crafted under the auspices of the former ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

However, the promise of a new Egypt with full inclusion and civil rights for Christians, women and all minorities now faces the challenge of electing new leaders and drafting new laws amid the threat of terror and violence from militants allied with the Muslim Brotherhood.

“It is good — not very good — but it is good,” Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman for Egypt’s Catholic Conference, said about the constitution, speaking with the Register from Cairo. “It could not have been better, given the context we are living now.”

More than 21 million Egyptians turned out on Jan. 14 and 15 to vote on the draft constitution. The constitution had been developed in the months following the July 3, 2013, mass protests assisted by Egypt’s military that toppled the former government of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Landslide approval had been expected, as the new constitution enjoyed the vocal support of Coptic Christian, secular and Salafist leaders of the ultra-conservative Al-Nour party. The constitution was ultimately passed with 98.1% of the vote. The Muslim Brotherhood, which opposed the new constitution, told its members to boycott the referendum.

The New York Times reported incidents of several anti-constitution campaigners being arrested, violent clashes between Muslim Brotherhood and police that left eight dead and a terrorist bombing in Giza.

Under the 2012 constitution and the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule, Coptic Christians faced some of the worst persecution since the seventh-century invasion of Egypt by Islamic Arab armies. Copts had boycotted the referendum on the previous Islamist constitution, which had passed with 63.8% of the vote when 17 million voted.

That constitution was scrapped and replaced by a draft developed by 50 technocrats representing various parts of Egyptian society.

Father Greiche, however, said that the new constitution’s vision of a pluralistic and inclusive civil state now depends on both translating it into laws and translating it into Egyptian hearts and minds.

“A text is a text,” he said. “First of all, you have to change the mentality of the people — their way of thinking and doing — and then the laws as well. Even sometimes when you have laws, if the mentality doesn’t change, the law is not [applied]."


Constitution Reflects Compromise

The text of the constitution is the product of compromises forged by its liberal, Christian and Salafist drafters. The preamble invokes the name of “God the Merciful” to bless Egypt and Muslims, Christians and Jews who worship him, and it makes a prominent reference to all of Egypt’s 7,000-year history. For Christians, it mentions how Egypt gave shelter to “the fledging Virgin and her newborn” and also “gave thousands of martyrs in defense of the Church of Christ.”

The new constitution recognizes that Islam is the state religion and that the “principles of Islamic law” are the “primary source of legislation.” However, the independent Constitutional Court has the power of judicial review over Egyptian laws and determines how those Islamic principles are applied.

The constitution states that Christians and Jews have the right to follow their religious laws “regulating their personal and religious affairs” and the right to select their own religious leaders. It states freedom of religion is “absolute,” but limits the public practice of religion and building houses of worship only to Christians, Jews and Muslims. 

On paper, the new constitution paves a way for Copts to finally achieve employment opportunities, including in the government and military, which they had been systematically denied since the 1952 revolution that overthrew Egypt’s king. Article 53, in particular, states, “Citizens are equal before the law; they are equal in rights and freedoms and duties, without discrimination” for any reason. It also calls for the law to criminalize all forms of discrimination and “incitement to hatred” and tasks the legislature to establish a special commission to implement this provision.

The constitution also calls for education to play a role in creating a new pluralistic society, calling for it to instill “equal citizenship, tolerance and nondiscrimination,” as well as “national identity.” It also prioritizes efforts to ensure that women do not suffer economic or political discrimination.

One controversial provision, which was insisted upon by the military, states that civilians who commit crimes against the military are subject to military trials. Egypt’s military also has the right to veto the choice of defense minister over the next two presidential terms.


An Unspoken Civil War

Meanwhile, the violence in Egypt continues to simmer and sometimes boil over, as Muslim Brotherhood members continue to fight Egypt’s military and police, often targeting Copts for revenge attacks.

“Technically, it is a civil war, but an undeclared civil war,” said Ashraf Ramelah, president of the Voice of the Copts. He explained that the military and police are fighting Islamist militants on three fronts: the border with Sinai and Libya, two main gateways for foreign fighters and within Egypt itself.

Father Greiche noted that, on Jan. 28, a policeman had been killed guarding the Coptic Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary in a suburb of Cairo and that Gen. Mohamed Said, a senior official of the Ministry of the Interior of Egypt, also had been assassinated.

“It is not only against Christians, but also the Muslims,” he said. “We’re living with much violence and sometimes terror caused by the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies.”

Father Greiche said that the Muslim Brotherhood has incited violence against the Copts, accusing them of working behind the scenes to change Egyptian society.

“But this is not true, because all of the Egyptians were fed up,” he said.

Ramelah explained that Copts also pose a particular target for the Muslim Brotherhood for two reasons: First, the Copts are effective at getting things done in Egypt; and, second, Copts may actually form a larger segment of Egyptian society than what is officially on the books. Currently, Copts are figured to be 10% of Egypt’s population of 85 million, or about 8.5 million people. But Ramelah believes the number is closer to 18-20 million, which would mean that Copts are a sizeable plurality on par with the membership of the Muslim Brotherhood.


The Next Step

The constitution takes immediate effect, and interim president Adly Mansour is expected to set a date for presidential elections within 30-90 days and then elections for parliament within the next six months.

Field Marshall Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, who announced the military’s backing of the mass protests which removed President Morsi from power on July 3, is a popular candidate who is expected to step down from the military and run for office.

Ramelah suspected that al-Sisi would probably be the front-runner for Copts and most Egyptians.

“They don’t have any other leader,” he said. “At least this man, so far, is trying to do something good.”

The challenge of electing a new parliament will follow the presidential election. The new constitution bans religious, sectarian and geographic-based parties, those which discriminate on the basis of gender or origin and those that engage in activities that are anti-democratic, secret, military or paramilitary in nature — effectively excluding groups similar to the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned since December and labeled a terrorist organization.

Father Greiche said the challenge for Egypt will be to elect a sizeable parliamentary majority of candidates committed to enacting laws implementing the vision of the constitution over the Salafists, who would prefer to align Egypt along Islamist rules and values.

 “We have to use this positive energy as best as we can,” he said.


Appeal for Help

Meanwhile, the Church in Egypt continues to depend on the help of the universal Church in easing the suffering of Christians in the country and financing its social services and educational mission.

Michael LaCivita, spokesman for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) said the papal agency works closely with the local Church, particularly the Coptic Catholic Church, which provides a “disproportionate” amount of social services in Egypt.

“The primary difficulty is lack of resources,” LaCivita said, explaining that CNEWA has been engaged in providing the local Churches humanitarian assistance in the form of added manpower, professional advice and financial resources to carry out the programs.

 “You’re talking about a country that largely depended on tourism, and, let’s face it, the number of tourists has been cut dramatically, and that’s hurt everybody.”

“The price for everything from seed to fertilizer has gone through the roof,” he added. “You have subsistence farmers who can no longer farm their plots to feed their families, let alone sell the extra to make a bit of profit.”

Father Greiche said that Christians who want to help the Church in Egypt should “help the Christians of the Middle East to stay in the Middle East and not to immigrate.”

“They can help, besides praying for them and with them, in financing the building of schools — not churches — but schools that can help people get educated and change their mindset,” he said. “It will take time, but what Egypt needs today is to educate the people and open their minds, so they can accept new things that the Egyptians are in need of now, like the ideas in the constitution.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.