Egyptians Approve Constitution with Establishment of Islam as State Religion

The Egyptian army just called for a referendum on changes to the constitution that would allow for a non-ruling party candidate to actually have a chance. Egypt’s liberals, by and large, called for a “no” vote, arguing that Egypt did not need amendments—it needed a new constitution altogether. Moreover, if this constitution were restored, even with changes, it would give any presidential candidate incredible powers were he/she to be elected, and any parliament in that scenario would probably be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the former ruling party—as these were, and remain, the most organized political forces in the country.

The liberals wanted time and the generals wanted out, which they would get if the constitution were restored. So the generals pushed for a “yes” vote, and were supported (predictably) by the Muslim Brotherhood and the former ruling party. The argument on their side was that Egypt was suffering economically, and needed to get back on its feet, which could only happen if a sense of normalcy returned—which could never happen under military rule.

The referendum passed. Overwhelmingly. And frankly, rather predictably—most of which has to do with the way that Egyptian society is split along class lines and geographical lines, and the failure of the “no” vote to engage beyond their comfort zone and build a coalition.

Religion did play a role, though less as a spiritual imperative than as an identity politics movement. The Coptic Church let it be known that they supported a “no” vote on the basis that if a new constitution were arrived at later on, with a parliament that allowed enough time for new parties to form and take power away from the Muslim Brotherhood, the present constitutional clause defining Islam as the religion of the state could be changed to something less identified with Islam. The liberal contingent, while not a religious group, is generally opposed to religion, and wanted to go even further than what the Church recommended—they wanted to scrap it altogether.

But Egypt is not just Copts and liberals. While they certainly play significant and influential roles in Egypt, Egypt is far more Muslim and religious. Judging by independent polls, the overwhelming majority of Egyptians probably want that clause to stay, or something similar. Its not Islamist, but it is conservative—and the ultra-puritanical Muslim preachers, that belong to the minority Salafi trend, made sure that Egypt was reminded of its “Islamic identity.” There were even reports of Salafi preachers scaring people into voting “yes”—not with violence, but on the claim that a vote for “yes” was “for Islam” while a “no” was “against Islam.”

After the vote, some liberals went on the warpath—warning of a radical religious regime for Egypt in the making. For these individuals, part of their identity was constructed in opposition to religion—or at least its presence in public life. Identity politics at the best of times is not particularly healthy; when it’s religious, or anti-religious—that is utilized in service of that kind of politics, religion and politics—both suffer. Right now, based on its social makeup, whether we like it or not, Egypt probably needs both to do well.

H.A. Hellyer is Fellow of the University of Warwick (UK) and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (USA). He lives between Cairo, Egypt, and Oxford, UK. www.hahellyer.com