Egypt Declared 'Islamic State' in New Constitution; Christians and Jews Protected?

The Constituent Assembly committee tasked with drafting Egypt's new constitution has revealed articles of the document, which declares that "Islam is the religion of the state" governed by "Islamic Sharia principles." However, those statements seem to contradict a provision for Christians and Jews to be governed by their own religion, according to observers.

The Egypt Independent reported this week that drafts of the first two articles of the new constitution had been agreed upon by executive members of the Constituent Assembly. Those involved in the drafts were reportedly careful to appease those concerned with the direction of the country after the removal of former President Hosni Mubarak, and the installation of Mohammad Morsi.

The draft for Article 1 reads, according to Egyptian newspaper Ahram: "The Arab Republic of Egypt is democratic, consultative, constitutional and modernized; based on the separation of powers and the principle of citizenship. Egypt is part of the Arab and Islamic nation, with strong ties to the African Continent."

Article 2's draft reads: "Islam is the religion of the state; Arabic is the official religion of the state; and principles of Islamic Sharia are the major source of legislation. Al-Azhar is the major reference on interpreting the principles of Islamic Sharia and that non-Muslims, especially the followers of Christianity and Judaism, should refer to their religions on personal matters, religious affairs, and the selection of their religious leaders."

The proposal for Article 3 reportedly reads: "Sovereignty is for the people alone and they are the source of authority. The people shall exercise and protect this sovereignty, and safeguard national unity in the manner specified in the Constitution."

According to Amrah Online, which reported on the full assembly meeting on Thursday, the Salafists have been aggressively pushing to implement Islamic Sharia law as more than just a guiding princile in legislative matters.

"They also believe that Sharia law, not its principles, should be the main source of legislation to ensure that the hudood, or the ordinances of God — such (as) stoning non-believes and amputating the hands of thieves — be applied. The imposition of hudood, according to most Islamist conservative forces, is a necessity so that Egypt does not become a secular state and that it is committed to implementing God's laws," the publication reports.

According to the Egypt Independent, the wording of Article 2 had originally won the approval of Edward Ghaleb, a member of the Constituent Assembly and secretary of the council that oversees the Orthodox Church's administrative affairs. He reportedly applauded Grand-Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed el-Tayeb, credited with the wording of the articles and who would be consulted specifically on matters of Sharia principles.

Evangelical leader Safwat al-Bayady was also cited by the publication as backing the previous draft articles, as were representatives of the Catholic Church and the Coptic community, the largest Christian group in Egypt.

The only dissension seemed to be among the country's ultra-orthdox Salafists, who took issue with Article 1 stating that "the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source for legislation." The grand sheik, however, has made it clear that he does not plan to have the wording changed, while another official insisted Sharia was only included to make it clear that Egypt would not become a secular state.

Middle East affairs expert Barry Rubin, commenting on what these proposed changes could mean, writes:

"Finally, Christians, it is implied, will be governed by their own religious laws. But this is a peculiar formulation. If Egypt is not governed by Sharia law then why would Christians need to be exempt from it? If this provision is restricted only to matters of personal status (principally marriage, divorce, and inheritance) then Christians would mostly be living under Sharia law in any state court. And what does this constitutional provision mean for example regarding the status of women, where Egyptian law has granted more rights than Sharia would do? Another important issue will be the appointment of future judges since many of the current magistrates oppose Sharia law as that of the state."

Expressing skepticism over the appearance of a moderate Egypt emerging, Rubin adds: "No doubt though the Constitution will be interpreted by many Western observers of proof that the Brotherhood and Salafists have moderated."

Although newly instated President Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, vowed that the new Egypt would be democratic and more inclusive of its minority segments, doubts have persisted among some observers who believe the new president could be overpowered by hardline Islamists.

Insisting last week that "Egypt is an Islamist state," David Schenker, also an expert in Middle East affairs, suggested that what was most important is understanding what kind of Islamic state Egypt would become.

"Already, the Salafis have threatened to withdraw from Morsi's presidential team if he follows through on his commitment to include a woman and a Coptic Christian among his six vice presidents," he wrote.

"In his victory speech, Morsi spoke about reconciliation. But going forward, nervous about being outflanked on its right, the Muslim Brotherhood will see little alternative to adopting the positions of its Salafi rivals, including a stricter interpretation of Islamic law," Schenker concluded.

The Constitutional Assembly's present suggestions are not set in stone and will likely be debated further as the full body of representatives from among Egypt's population gather to decide what powers the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of government will hold.

But even the assembly, which fell apart earlier this year amid protests from Christians, moderate Islamists, liberals and other groups claiming unfair representation, is in danger of being dissolved. The current committee tasked with drafting Egypts new constitution is facing the same accusations, with several lawsuits filed challenging its legality.