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Legislating identity in Egypt: Between monopoly and reduction

Identity is fluid and multifaceted; should not be linked to single concepts such as religion or ethnicity in legislation

Samir Morcos , Thursday 3 Oct 2013
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Views: 1439

A friend asked me angrily why a select few are monopolising the debate about the articles on identity in the constitution. Why the constant warnings that this topic is a red line? - Is it not everyone's' right to participate in a serious discussion on the subject in order to reach a satisfactory national formula?

If it is a red line; why is it being debated to begin with? Do we need to discuss and legislate our identity?

After calming my friend down, I offered answers to his questions: Many constitutions stipulate the identity of the state. However, a decision on such clauses is usually reached through free debate, with efforts to ensure discussions do not become politicised or religious. Many experts in the field make a clear distinction between informed perspectives and political interests when discussing issues such as identity and nationalism.

From a historical perspective, societies have consistently revised their collective identity, especially following major events or during critical moments of change. The West is familiar with such publications as The Personality of Britain, by Cyril Fox; The Identity of France, by Fernand Braudel; and Identity and Violence, by Amartya Sen, whose work has triggered some controversy over the past two years (please refer to my article in Al-Ahram on 20 July, 2008).

In Egypt, volumes have been written on the subject: The Composition of Egypt, by Mohamed Shafiq Ghorbal; The Unity of Egypt’s History, by Mohamed Al-Azab Moussa; The Character of Egypt, by Gamal Hemdan; Folklore Literature, by Ahmed Rushdi Saleh, and so on.

What is the problem?

The problem is two-fold: Firstly, when political or strict religious bias dominates the definition of identity; secondly, when we ignore the vast wealth of knowledge on the subject that has accumulated over decades.

The definitive outcome of political or religious bias is either a monopoly on identity or its abridging. Thus, instead of debating identity from an educated perspective, it becomes a controversial endevour.

The late Ahmed Bahaaeddin - as part of a key intellectual debate in response to statements by Tawfik El-Hakeem about Egypt’s neutral position in 1978 - noted that the lives of nations contain constants and variables that are often confused. Bahaaeddin maintains intellectuals focus on constants, while politics deals with variables, and that mixing the two is a serious mistake.

In other words, the debate on identity should be framed intellectually and dialogue should be based on history, geography, culture and the evolution of society. Meanwhile, issues arising within everyday politics need to be addressed within the framework of the modern state, founded on laws, citizenship and civil society.

The constitution that was stealthily passed in the middle of the night under Morsi's rule is based on a mentality that aims to divide Egyptians by religion. Although a living reality in Egypt has largely accepted cultural and religious diversity as a result of location, the constitution, borrowed from the Ottomans, addresses individuals based on religion and sect, not as modern citizens. 

We should seek to answer the question, ‘who are we?'  independently of politics and religion. We must understand that identity is a composite of multiple elements, and not deal with the issue as if it were static throughout the ages.

Identity is a variable concept; it influences and is influenced, and it is formed, shaped and refined by time. It is a dynamic process.

Linking identity to a single element, such as religion or ethnicity, is known as singular affiliation, which assumes – through extreme reduction and perhaps intentional deception – an affiliation to one element only.

In reality, identity incorporates many elements, such as religion, culture, language and class.

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