Egypt is a civil state, and its citizens are Muslims

Hassan Abou Taleb , Thursday 7 Nov 2013

Egypt was and will continue to be a civil state in which everyone is equal before the law; however, the new constitution should not aim to terminate the significant role of religion or the army

It seems that some members of Egypt's 50-member constitution drafting committee, as well as a large portion of the ruling elite, do not understand the concept of a "civil state." This has caused considerable confusion for the average Egyptian.

The idea of a civil state has been used by Egyptian secular elites as a blanket term in opposition to a religious state or a state run by the military. The excessive use of civil state rhetoric makes it appear as if Egyptians are simultaneously at war with religion and with the armed forces.

I was particularly disturbed by some of the comments made by Dr. Hazem El-Beblawi during his visit to the United Arab Emirates. He claimed, for example, that the 25 January revolution had put an end to military rule in Egypt once and for all, and thus the return to military rule would harm the army first and foremost.

I was also disturbed by the statements made by Mr. Mohamed Salmawy about the current constitutional draft, which he said would terminate the rule of religion and the army. I understand that most Egyptians, myself included, do not support conventional military rule wherein army generals assume full control of the state's political operations and the distribution of national resources. However, I think it is a radical misrepresentation to suggest that we are all in agreement over the necessity of eliminating religion from the public sphere.

In response to Dr. El-Beblawi's aforementioned remarks, with regard to the appropriate role of the military in Egyptian politics, one may wonder whether there was military rule in Egypt before the 25 January revolution. If Mubarak, as a member of the Armed Forces, was Egypt's president for three decades, does that mean that Egypt was under the control of the military for his entire reign? I would argue that Egypt was not under military rule even if there was a former military officer in the presidential chair. The fact that Mubarak or Gamal Abdel Nasser belonged to the armed forces does not mean that they formed military-run states.

In the initial years following the 1952 revolution, military presence did prevail in the general political scene, but it did not restrict the diverse roles of civilians -- be it economists, manufacturers, engineers, contractors, scholars or media professionals -- and their diverse intellectual orientations. As Nasser's political regime extended its rule, the military's role in the political process shrunk naturally before disappearing after the 1967 defeat in the Arab-Israeli War. Though the army maintained a special status in state institutions, the state was predominantly civil.

Even the retired military officers that became governors or directors of companies and public institutions under Nasser's leadership were appointed based on their experience and qualifications, not because they were army representatives. In addition, the appointment of former military generals to positions outside military institutions challenged them to view things as civilians rather than soldiers. They were clearly committed to state laws and regulations set by the executive legislators. This was hardly military rule.

If anyone objects to the nomination of an army officer for the presidency or parliament, they should say so openly. There is no need to shuffle cards or distort historical facts. Courage is a treasure, and our current revolutionary circumstances allow for that and more.

Egypt was and will continue to be a civil state in the conventional sense. That is, all Egyptian citizens, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or gender, are equal before the Constitution and the law. This equality is especially important with regard to positions within state institutions; all citizens should be afforded equal opportunity to participate and hold positions of power in government. So, just as we value judges, diplomats, and academics, what right do we have to devalue and exclude military and security personnel should they choose to lawfully engage in political work after they have left their former occupations?

With regard to the role of religion in Egyptian politics, no one could, in good faith, deny the significant role that religion -- be it Islam, Christianity, or Judaism -- plays in the hearts of Egyptians. Anyone who would deny this is out of touch with the Egyptian people. It is delusional to think that a new constitution that does not acknowledge the important role of religion in Egypt could be successful. There is no reason to begin a losing battle against Egypt's Islamic identity. A more realistic and honest constitution would reflect the reality of Egyptians' heritage, history and current aspirations, without overriding their rights, particularly those that ensure freedom of religion. The constitution should also regulate public religious practice to ensure that is it not monopolized by any particular individual, institution or group, in a way that allows room for the new voices that these changing times require.

As has been mentioned, the civil state is related to legal equality, which is the essence of citizenship. In this sense, Islam was a pioneer of the civil state, for there is no system of priesthood in it. The respect that the majority of Muslims have for individual religious clerics and their teachings is an appreciation of knowledge and advice, not of the person himself. The concepts derived from the Qur'an and Sunnah (sayings and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed), distinct from the ideologies of changing political currents, have dictated equality between all men. According to the Qur'an, judgment and punishment should be reserved for Judgment Day before God.

Short link: