Advancing a Free Society

A Hopeful Sign for Egypt – and Beyond

Friday, June 24, 2011

Many of us are concerned that a more democratic Egypt will become a more Islamic and less tolerant Egypt: illiberal in its political structure; enforcing a harsh Sharia law through its courts; punitive in dealings with journalists and activists; dangerous to Christians and other non-Muslims; repudiating its treaties with Israel; facilitating Hamas and Hezbollah; and working in concert with Iran.  In the months since democracy activists pressured Hosni Mubarak to resign, there have been worrisome indicators on all of those fronts.

But this week Egypt’s highest religious council -- and the senior religious authority among Sunni muslims -- published an extraordinary document that should give us all hope Mubarak’s fall may advance freedom, tolerance, and the rule of law in Egypt.

The Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed al Tayeb, convened a group of Egyptians -- notably including Christians, a striking statement by itself -- to provide religious guidance on Egypt’s transition.  It is pointedly intended to shape the drafting of Egypt’s constitution, which will be re-written after parliamentary elections in the fall.  Al-Azhar made two revolutionary findings:

  • Egypt should be “ruled by law and law alone”; and
  • should hold elections, respect basic rights, uphold its international commitments, and guarantee “full protection and total respect” to places of worship belonging to other religions.

What this means is that Sunni Islam’s religious leaders are endorsing a moderate, democratic state.  They even declined Sharia law as the legal basis for judicial rulings, saying only that law should be informed by the principles of Sharia, and emphasizing that legislating is the responsibility of elected legislators.

Al-Azhar, too, had suffered under Mubarak’s rule, being forced to submit to government-elected religious leaders.  Those men are still in place, and to their great credit, set this ruling in motion.  Another of their findings is that the government should have no role in selecting religious leaders, a strong call for separation of church and state.

Mahmoud Azab, a spokesman of the council, described the meaning of the report as “Egyptians are afraid they would come under the rule of an autocratic theocracy... Domestic and international fears are justified because of some of the calls we are now hearing. But we are telling people our religion does not include rule by a theocratic state.”

Two other interesting developments in Egypt reinforce the impression that country is on a positive trajectory.  First, the Muslim Brotherhood has joined forces with Egypt’s flagship liberal party, Wafd.  That both see advantages to combining suggests potentially a moderating of the Muslim Brotherhood, and also their skepticism they could win an election outright.  If the Brotherhood were the stampeding force many of us fear, they would have no need for broadening their political base or moderating their message through union with the traditional democratic party.

Second, the Muslim Brotherhood itself has fractured, with the “youth wing” breaking off from the main party.  Remember the Brotherhood chased Egypt’s revolution, they didn’t start it.  During the protests in Tahrir square and afterward, there have been signs that younger Brothers are frustrated with the unwillingness of their elders to embrace democracy’s political outreach.  The open breach now enacted between factions of the Brotherhood will split the votes available and create opportunities for both factions to ally with parties of different political stripes as well as each other; this bodes well for a more democratic Egypt.

The deputy leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Rashad Bayoumi, called the document exemplary.  Let us hope Al-Azhar’s message shapes the drafting of Egypt’s constitution and affects all Sunni communities.

(photo credit: Mohd Azli Abdul Malek)