Egypt: In defence of the civil state

Emad Gad , Tuesday 18 Jan 2011

If we are to seriously try to achieve the civil state we need to learn how to bolster its pillars, starting with coexistence and co-citizenship

Discussions in Egypt about the civil state by many of the country's writers and thinkers who hope to see it extract itself from this appalling, blind alley of sectarianism are going around in circles. The head of state himself has recently begun to talk about the civil state and the need to support and reinforce it, claiming that it was a prerequisite for creating a legitimate, pluralistic, diverse society – the kind of the society that will be able to be a part of the future. A civil society can be achieved through a number of measures, and I intend to focus here on the principle of coexistence – the first pillar of civil state. Accordingly, I argue, we cannot have this civil state without co-citizenship.  

Co-citizenship is defined as "full and equal membership in society, in terms of rights and duties." Meaning, all citizens are equal without discrimination on any basis, including religion, creed, sex, colour, economic status, political affiliation, and intellectual and cultural outlook. According to this definition, co-citizenship means complete equality among society with regards to rights and responsibility, beyond just constitutional and legal regulations. This tenet needs to be upheld by the people as part of their common culture, whereby not a single component of co-citizenry is questioned or doubted.

Equality also requires a sense and understanding shared by the souls of all nationals, according to which they as citizens are equal partners in rights and duties. Naturally, the value of co-citizenship is grossly undermined if a sector of the citizenry feels – based on the primary factors of division, namely religion, creed and language – that its members ought to be more privileged than their compatriots thanks to their specific heritage.

The challenges posed by the absence of co-citizenship are only compounded when ideological and cultural trends cause individuals to believe that they are indeed better than others because of their heritage. Indeed, some citizens and sectors in society are convinced of their superiority, basing their beliefs on factors such as employment status, expertise, and achievements. This is rooted and entrenched in their self-identification as decedents of a certain creed, language or religion, drowning out any discussions of nationalism and co-citizenship. If such discussions are to be held, they ought to aim at reaching the goals, and not just at conversing. 

If we examine Egypt's state of affair, we will find that factors constricting its co-citizenship, making it incomplete and battered. This is true despite the fact that the Egyptian constitution lists the tenets of equality, freedom of religion and opinion, and other human and societal values fundamental in the formation of a strong basis for a state of co-citizenship. It is apparent that Egypt's problem is rooted in the overlap between religion, society and politics, with religious culture being the strongest bonding element, the world over. 

Egypt's co-citizenship problems have a long history, beginning with the July Revolution of 1952. There has been an intense campaign to eradicate the value of co-citizenship using a variety of tools, including school curricula, media policies, and several laws and regulations, which together created a general atmosphere in which these principles of equality are only theoretical. They have also led to the instigation of many episodes and incidents.

 Egypt's challenging conditions cannot be dealt with casually or superficially. Some would have these challenges condensed into just the issue of discriminatory policies, but they are actually far more complex. Certainly, it is important that the First Article in the Constitution upholds the value of co-citizenship, and that laws ban discrimination. But it is more important for the issue to be addressed through core education and the media, where these values of equality and co-citizenship continue to be undermined and limited. Once we have done so, other symptoms of our challenges can be contained and the seeds of equality and co-citizenry may blossom, beginning with our children.

Consequently, a new generation of Egyptians will grow up respecting human rights and believing in the values of democracy, equality, and co-citizenship. And within two or three decades, we will be able to pave the way for a serious discussion on the value of equality and co-citizenry. It will become a part of the people's nature and will be reflected in their actions, leading necessary legal amendments that are based on natural and sincere feelings, rather than artificial ones.

Naturally, it is in the hands of the government to opt for these necessary measures, such as revising school curricula, altering media policies, and training the state's bureaucracy to respect and adhere to these values.

As Egyptians, we want our homeland to be secure and stable, a place where shared human values prevail over sectarian divisions. But for this materialized a strong belief in these shared values is required. Without these human values, society will not succeed, progress, grow or develop. We need a vision that deals with all these issues with complete transparency, leading us towards reaching a broad common perspective, cemented in the values of equality and co-citizenship. We need a vision which respects different creeds and religious beliefs, under the banned of freedom and the understanding that Egypt is for all Egyptians, above all else. 

If this vision can be achieved, then it will create a solid foundation for a cohesive society, which champions co-citizenship and aspires to become a modern, contemporary civil state.

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