What was religion doing in the debate on Egypt's Constitutional amendments?

Salma Shukrallah and Yassin Gaber, Tuesday 22 Mar 2011

Saturday's referendum concerned articles of the constitution related to presidential elections, the presidential term and emergency law. How, then, did religion come to dominate the debate, and influence the voting?

Salafi woman votes
A Salafist woman after voting "yes" in referendum on constitutional amendments

After the victory for the “Yes” camp, many are wondering whether this was a consequence of the religious sway of Islamists and Salafists.

Egypt, which held its first referendum in 1956 after the collapse of the monarchy, held its 22nd and what many are calling its freest, fairest referendum on Saturday.

The proposed constitutional amendments put to the vote largely dealt with the articles of the 1971 constitution pertaining to presidential elections and the president’s term in office.

There was no mention of the notorious Article 2, amended by President Anwar Al-Sadat through an earlier referendum in 1980, which states that "Islam is the religion of the State, Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).”

Nevertheless, Article 2 soon became central to the countrywide debate over the amendments. Along with the heated, albeit misplaced, talk on Article 2 came a term which though recognisable in academic halls and Islamic orthodox circles was largely absent from public debate.

The imposition of Article 2 on the debate was for the most part the handiwork of the Salafist movement, which proliferated and grew in influence within Egypt during the last years of Mubarak's rule, receiving considerable support and sustenance from state bodies, particularly the infamous State Security Service, according to experts on the Islamist movement. The Salafi movement, according to experts, was an answer to the Mubarak regime's prayers. The Salafi doctrine prohibits any political opposition to a Muslim ruler, and thereby provided the Mubarak regime with an excellent Islamist alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, which that regime considered the most potent threat to its continued sway.

On the other hand, Salafists hold with one of the most strict and literalist interpretations of Islamic doctrine; they advocate the full veil, and have been largely responsible for its spreading during the past few years; Salafi men are for the most part bearded, and dress in Galabyias or Afghani-style shirts. More serious, however, is the open hostility with which Salafists hold non-Muslims, particularly Egypt's large Coptic community, estimated at some 10 million. This latter feature of Egyptian Salafism is said to have been supported and promoted by the State Security Service, which used anti-Coptic incitement both as an ideal instrument of distraction, as well as to keep the increasingly restive Coptic community in line.

Salafists were among the fiercest advocates of the "Yes" vote, declaring it a religious duty for all Muslims, portraying the "No" campaigners as Christian and secularist "enemies of Islam".

Adverts and statements began popping up in newspapers, on television and in fliers urging pious Muslims to vote “Yes”.

One advertisement campaign, printed in the Al-Ahram daily on 16 March on behalf of the Shari'a Association for Worker Cooperation through the Quran and Sunnah, stated simply that the January 25 revolution was a gift from God which needed to be protected. The advert continued: “The entire leadership of the association considers it to be an Islamic duty that every Egyptian voice his/her agreement to the amendments as a first step towards the later formulation of a complete constitution. Gradual reform cannot be rejected by any sane person. We see giving up on this duty as a negative thing rejected by Islam.”

In a statement published on Twitter on Monday, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and presidential hopeful Mohamed El-Baradei remarked on the same advert: “Ad on 1st page of Al-Ahram by religious group claiming Yes vote is a ‘religious duty’. Something sinister is going on!”

The Sharia Association is widely considered to be a Salafist organisation, providing social, medical and educational services to less affluent communities. The campaign does not connect the group's political choice with its charitable work; rather it plays on the notion of religious duty and the threat of apostasy.

After decades of repression, politically active groups, including Islamists and those considered to be Salafists, are beginning to enjoy unprecedented liberties after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

While some, namely the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), have long been active under Mubarak’s regime, others have recently entered or re-entered political life. The Islamic Group (Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiyya) has just been revived after many of its leaders were released, following decades of imprisonment.

Suspicions of mounting fanaticism have been on the rise, especially after the release of Aboud and Tarek El-Zomor, members of the Islamic Group involved in the 1981 assassination of President Sadat. The fear was amplified during the referendum, especially after the discourse over the “Yes” or “No” vote took a religious turn.

Although religion was not the only argument marshalled by those defending the “Yes” vote, the widespread notion that it was “un-Islamic” to vote “No” angered many and heightened existing fears that Islamists and Salafists were pushing their agendas through religious manipulation instead of political participation.

It is, however, worth nothing that in Alexandria, considered the Muslim Brotherhood’s stronghold, the referendum showed a split of almost 60-40 per cent in favour of the "Yes" vote. This is surprisingly lower than the expected figures and the national results at 77-23 per cent in favour of “Yes”.

Nonetheless, cases of attacks on “No” supporters and campaigners have been reported. Rasha Azab, a “No” campaigner, says: “We were attacked by Salafists during a rally in Maadi; they accused us of wanting to remove the second article of the constitution by convincing people to vote ‘No’.”

Others, however, had more frightening stories of violent attacks and assaults. Gamila Ismail, Ghad party member and former Parliamentary candidate, said she was attacked in Aswan by “bearded thugs” on motorcycles who tried to smash her car.

Arwa Marei, another “No” campaigner said: “I was distributing flyers in front of a polling station in Imbaba when two Muslim Brotherhood members approached me, trying to change my mind; when they realised that I was not going to, they asked me to stop trying to influence people’s decisions and said they would report me to the head of the electoral committee. They went into the polling station and came back without him, but with a third man who started shouting at me, took the flyers I had and tore them apart; he then grabbed me by my clothes. Some of the passersby interfered and released me.”

Marei also added that when asked by a taxi driver what her vote would be she responded “No” to which he replied, “You would then be supporting our foes (read: Christians)” – the cab driver had surmised she was a Muslim from her veil. When Marei argued with him about that statement, he asked her to get out of the taxi.

Nevertheless, the Brotherhood denies any involvement in such acts. Mohamed Osman, member of the Brotherhood and the Revolution Youth Coalition, stressed: “We have been participating in elections since the forties, and it was we who were the most assaulted for decades. We should not be confused with other Islamist groups. There are Islamist groups that have for years now been completely isolated and are politically inexperienced. We haven’t used Article 2 in any of our campaigns. The debate over the referendum made it seem as though it was a split between the progressive forces and the Islamist forces and this is not true.”

Ibrahim El-Hudaybi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, believes that the use of ideological weapons was rife on both sides. When asked about the Salafists, he replied that they were answering unasked questions. “It was a procedural question which both sides approached as an ideological one...it shouldn’t have been.”

El-Hudaybi emphasised that the Brotherhood discussed the amendments from a procedural angle. “Some did use religion but not the leadership,” he stated, adding that some within the Islamist organisation voted “No”.

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