On the Wahington conference
On promoting reform
As I resume my articles on the recent Washington conference, I begin by reminding my readers that this conference which is unanimously termed by our media as the “Coptic conference” was in fact on “Democracy for Muslims and Christians in Egypt, and supporting democratic change in the Middle East”. In my presentation, I will disregard the speeches and discussions which diverted from the conference perspective, and exploited it instead to discharge angry protest at the curtailed human rights, religious freedom, and democracy in the region without offering any view of reform. I will focus on the papers which offered objective views, and extended bridges towards change and reform. I begin with excerpts of my own paper.
“Egypt is already
on the road to political reform. We should
support this change by actively
taking part in it on all levels. Democracy does not stop at freedom of expression, which is already fully
“Human rights standards in Egypt fall widely short of the acceptable, especially considering the international treaties of which Egypt is signatory. However, it is hoped the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) will play a positive role in this respect.
“Citizenship rights standards are the prime concern of national
programmes at this stage. Only the consolidation of citizenship rights concepts can end the
religious bias which divided and
separated Egyptians throughout the past three decades.
At the outset
of 2005, in the wake of sectarian incidents that led to a sit-in by thousands of Copts at the
St Mark’s cathedral grounds in
“Religious freedom in Egypt is incomplete. Even though the Constitution stipulates freedom of worship for Muslims and Christians, the latter face legislative discrimination regarding the rights to build and restore their places of worship. Whereas mosques are built and renovated with absolute freedom, churches are subject to a plethora of presidential, political, and security approvals. Worth noting is that presidential decrees aiming at easing these approvals are issued from time to time—all very praiseworthy, yet the real question remains one of equality between Egyptians. We hope the new Parliament would issue the widely-supported unified law for places of worship swiftly enough.
“Measures of competence and merit regarding appointment to leadership and high-position government and official posts remain severely shaken. Copts are regularly excluded from such appointments, not due to any Constitutional, legal, or declared policy, but due to rampant, undeclared fanaticism. The real decision-makers on all levels—in the presidency, government, universities, or public institutions—tend to look the other way. Since no real criteria exist to measure such behaviour, and in the absence of accountability on that head, it is hoped that the NCHR or the ECCR—once it is established—could monitor the problem and recommend remedies.
“The marginalisation of Copts and the discrimination against them have led to their withdrawal, in bitterness, from public and political life, and hence their notoriously low participation in politics. This naturally resulted in their scarce numbers on parties’ candidate lists in parliamentary and municipal elections, a scarcity often explained away by the argument that they had no real chance of being elected. This may be due to the erroneous concept of ‘Muslim elects Muslim and Copt elects Copt’, which in turn reflects an unprecedented tendency to ‘religionise’ politics. The challenge is to fight such thought on the long term through calling upon Copts to assume a thoroughly active part in politics, and on the short term through changing the election law to allow for list candidacy—which would afford Copts and women better chances—instead of the present individual candidacy system.
“A full programme—tackled in detail by the media during the recent elections—of political, democratic reform awaits the new parliament. The main features are the separation between State and religion, the stipulation of a maximum of two presidential terms for the president, the appointment of a vice president, separation between State authorities, abolishment of the state of emergency, freedom of foundation of non-religious political parties, freedom of establishment of written, audio, and video media venues, and freedom of formation of civil society organisations. These measures constitute in their entirety a comprehensive system of reform which could serve to modernise Egypt and benefit all Egyptians—Copts being part and parcel of them.
“Civil society institutions and the people of Egypt bear a historic responsibility in dissipating the sectarian inflammation which leads to the eruption of violence at the first surfacing of underlying problems, no matter how trivial. The build-up of sectarian problems has resulted in the withdrawal of each sector within its own self-imposed boundaries of church or mosque. It is now up to civil society to draw them back into common activities and positive co-existence, to destroy the alienation and repulsion which nurture fanatic thought.
“It is of the utmost importance that, as we gather here in Washington to candidly expose and discuss our problems and perspectives of reform, we agree that our aim is to support the reform that has already begun in Egypt. In this context, we call upon the Egyptian government, political parties, and civil society institutions to place our problems on the table in Egypt—the natural place for it—around which all the sons and daughters of Egypt can gather for a national dialogue. Let us put an end to denying our problems, which drove some of us to go outside Egypt to discuss them freely and risk being accused of seeking empowerment from outside even as we truly seek it at home.”