Constitutional Freedoms for Egypt’s Religious Minorities—Necessary and Possible

Egypt - The future Constitutional Assembly—whose members the newly elected parliament will select to write Egypt’s new constitution—will have the unique opportunity to guarantee constitutional freedoms and protections for every Egyptian, including members of religious minorities. The inclusion of these constitutional safeguards would finally take on Egypt’s structural problem of religious discrimination and address an underlying cause of the increasing trend of sectarian violence.

Incidents of sectarian violence—especially targeting Christians—became more frequent and violent in the latter years of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The 2010 drive-by shootings in Nag Hammadi and the 2011 New Years church bombing in Alexandria demonstrate this escalating trend. Rather than arrest Egyptian perpetrators of the latter incident, Mubarak blamed “foreign hands,” implicating al-Qaeda. In addition, Christians, who constitute ten percent of Egypt’s population, have been underrepresented in the government as well as in military and security forces. Christians also face discrimination in employment and state-imposed restrictions on worship. Mubarak’s state-run television and newspapers exacerbated suspicion of and hatred against religious minorities.

Mubarak’s regime failed to hold accountable those responsible for sectarian violence and to address ongoing discrimination. Yet, unlike the previous authoritarian regime, Egypt’s emerging democratic state and its new constitution is taking steps to promote and protect religious freedom, which emulates the interreligious unity seen in Tahrir Square during the 18-day protest leading to Mubarak’s resignation.

The Security Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has agreed to implement a unified list of supra-constitutional principles—comprised of the numerous proposals, like Sheikh al-Azhar’s eleven-point program, that have been issued in recent weeks—to safeguard and guide the drafting of the new constitution. Despite their differences on certain issues, the various proposals and the current unified draft all endorse constitutional freedoms and protections for religious minorities.

Like the unity in Tahrir and the support for supra-constitutional religious freedoms, Muslim leaders’ condemnation of and recent pubic protests against the May church attacks in Imbaba demonstrate a popular concern and discontent about the increasing trend of sectarianism. Therefore, it is likely that most Egyptians would welcome new constitutional principles protecting religious minorities, in turn allowing for a more democratic Egypt.

Freedom of religion or belief is a basic human right that should be protected for all individuals in every nation’s most fundamental legal document—the constitution. Every Egyptian, regardless of their religion and whether Muslim or non-Muslim, deserves to be equal before the law and receive the equal protection of the law. Constitutional safeguards for religious minorities can prevent the future government from imposing restrictions on worship and condoning discrimination, as was prevalent in Mubarak’s authoritarian regime. Egypt’s new constitution should comply with Egypt’s obligations as a State Party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other international human rights treaties to uphold freedom of religion or belief and to combat discrimination on the basis of religion or other grounds. After Egypt’s parliamentary elections, the Constitutional Assembly should take advantage of its unique opportunity to foster an environment of peaceful interreligious coexistence and cooperation.