Egypt for all Egyptians

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Tuesday 15 Feb 2022

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s decision last week to appoint the first Coptic Christian president of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) is indeed a historic development that deserves to be marked and celebrated. Judge Boulos Fahmi Eskandar took over from Said Marei Mohamed Gad, having been selected from among the five oldest of 15 sitting judges on the bench.

Since he took office in June 2014, Al-Sisi has been determined to put into practice a long-standing Egyptian slogan raised by nationalist leaders who were demanding Egypt’s independence and an end to British colonialism in the early 20th century: “Egypt belongs to all Egyptians.”

This was no easy choice or task, considering the ugly year Egypt experienced when Muslim Brotherhood leaders were in power in 2012, debating whether the president of a Muslim-majority country should even attend Christian religious ceremonies. The Brotherhood’s answer was: No. Churches were burned down and attacked both during the Brotherhood’s rule, and immediately after the ouster of the late president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July, 2013.

That was only the tip of the iceberg, and an accumulation of decades in which the Brotherhood and other extremist religious groups promoted a sectarian agenda aimed at dividing Egyptians and undermining national unity. Without such unity, the president has repeatedly stated, Egypt will never enjoy true stability or benefit from the energy and creativity of all its citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs or belonging.

As soon as the president took office, he sought to mend ties with Egyptian Christians, compensating them for the years of fear and isolation they suffered when the Brotherhood controlled the political scene between early 2011 and the summer of 2013. No other Egyptian president has been as determined to regularly attend celebration marking Coptic Christmas on 7 January each year, together with Pope Towadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Laws were passed to facilitate the building of new churches and to give legal status to hundreds of worship spaces that Christian communities built informally to overcome the severe restrictions imposed over the past decades, and prominent Christians were appointed ministers and governors, including the governor of Damietta who was also the first woman to occupy such top post.

However, the appointment of Chief Judge Eskandar as head of SCC is the most daring step President Al-Sisi has taken over almost eight years since he came to power, confirming his commitment and belief that all Egyptians must enjoy equal rights, as enshrined in the country’s constitution and laws. Among the extremist ideas political Islamic groups had sought to propagate was the idea that non-Muslims should be allowed to assume top state posts. In their sectarian and extremist ideology Egypt is defined as “an Islamic state” and not one where all citizens enjoy equal rights.

According to Egypt’s 2014 Constitution, the head of the SCC is the second in line to take over the presidency in case of any emergency or the sudden inability of the president to carry out his duties. In such a case, the parliament speaker would temporarily take over the presidency until a new president is elected in 90 days. If parliament is not in session, the interim president would be the head of the SCC.

In June 2019, Al-Sisi ratified amended laws passed by parliament, which regulate the appointment of heads of top judicial bodies, including the SCC. Under the amended laws, the president has the authority to choose the head of the SCC from among the five longest-serving deputy chairs for a one-time term of four years, which ends if the age of retirement is reached. Al-Sisi intentionally chose Judge Eskandar.

No Egyptian Christian had been appointed to this high position. The Constitutional Court is the highest judicial body, and is an autonomous and independent judicial authority in charge of ensuring that domestic laws and regulations should be in line with the constitution.

However, Judge Eskandar was not only appointed because of his religious belonging. He has developed a reputation over many years as a diligent and knowledgeable judge who definitely deserves this top post. Chief Judge Eskandar, 65, is the 19th chief justice. He graduated from the Faculty of Law at Cairo University in 1977, and worked in the Public Prosecution Office beginning in 1978. He earned a diploma in Judicial Administration in the United States in 1994, and supervised the General Secretariat of the Supreme Constitutional Court starting in October 2014. Eskandar served as the vice president of the SCC in 2010 and then as president of the Cairo Appeal Court until he was reappointed as the vice president of the SCC in 2014.

President Al-Sisi’s decision is an unprecedented progressive step in the past 50 years, bringing to an end the era of seeking to appease extremist religious groups as one way to maintain artificial stability. No country can progress without the effort and participation of all its citizens, regardless of religion, ethnicity or social background. This was the spirit of the popular revolution of June 30, 2013, which the president supported in order to confront extremist and terrorist organisations seeking to undermine Egypt as a democratic and modern state that serves the interests of all its citizens.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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