19 August 2013

Separation of church and state: an Egyptian example?

The English-language online edition of the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram reports that work is underway on amending the country's constitution, mainly to undo damage reportedly done by the Muslim Brotherhood during its brief time in power. In part, this means restoring some of the old constitution that the Brotherhood and its allies had repealed. Perhaps most noteworthy of the restorations is a 2007 amendment that appears to target the Brotherhood itself. In al-Ahram's own English, the amendment reads: "It is not permitted to pursue any political activity or establish any political parties within any religious frame of reference (marja’iyya) or on any religious basis or on the basis of gender or origin." In other words, the amendment forbids explicitly religious parties. Egypt would have no place for a "Muslim Party," for instance. The ban would presumably cover more than superficial piety. Mohamed Morsi, the deposed president, won power as the candidate of the secular-sounding "Freedom and Justice Party," a Brotherhood front that presumably would be identified as such. In a compromise with Islamists not attached to the Brotherhood, the amendment process is likely to preserve 2012 language identifying sharia as the "main source" of Egyptian law. One way of looking at this is that the compromise allows the Egyptian government and courts to argue that, since the country is already more or less an Islamic state, an Islamic party would be a dubious redundancy. However you look at it, the 2007 amendment makes a fundamental separation of religion and politics more clear, arguably, than the First Amendment does in the U.S. While the U.S. government may make no law respecting religion, it doesn't follow automatically that something called the "Christian Party" could not contest elections. Whether Egypt will be better off having that language back in its constitution remains to be seen, but it looks like a good idea on paper.

Of further interest, considering how media-driven the uprising against Morsi was, is a proposal to repeal the Egyptian parliament's Shura Council. Back in 1980 this body was empowered to "impose hegemony on the Egyptian press," according to its critics. Morsi's critics accused him and his party of using their majority on the Shura Council to "Brotherhoodise national press institutions and the state-owned Radio and Television Union." The new powers apparently intend to make sure that will never happen again. This has been a 3M revolution so far, combining the Mob, the Media and the Military. Whether it includes the Majority still remains to be determined, but if the tyranny of a majority is what constitution-makers and amenders are really worried about, the country may be on the right track regardless.

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