Religious Leaders and Reform in Post-Mubarak Egypt
Jenna Larson Boyle Wednesday, 4 May 2011
On February 13, 2011, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the official ruler of Egypt following Hosni Mubarak's removal, dissolved Egypt's legislative houses—the People's Assembly and the Shura Council—and suspended the constitution. New parliamentary elections in Egypt are currently scheduled to take place in September 2011.
The elections in September will shape Egypt's future, as the next legislature and government will implement wider change, including a new Egyptian constitution. However, the Egyptians' successful removal of Mubarak does not guarantee that the political landscape will change significantly. Many religious leaders in Egypt are trying to encourage political reform that expresses citizens' desires for religious freedom, equality, and civil liberties. This is a welcome development and should be encouraged. But we should not stop there. As the country anticipates political reform, religious leaders and organizations are uniquely equipped to also encourage social reform by promoting religious dialogue, providing social services, addressing underlying religious and societal tensions, and offering non-violent interpretations of the Qur'an. These efforts demonstrate the potential power of religion to help Egypt become both more stable and free.
Religion's Role in a Parliamentary Egypt
While religion was not a primary motivating factor for the Egyptian protests and demands, its influence was palpable. Many mosques and churches served as gathering places for demonstrators, and some Muslims and Christians prayed together during the protests. Egyptians are highly religious people, with 99 percent saying that religion plays an important role in their daily life. While the Egyptian Constitution prohibited the formation of religious political parties, the majority of those in parliament were Muslim men. Discriminatory legislation, influenced by shari'a law, marginalized religious minorities (such as the Copts and Baha'i) and women. The Egyptian ID cards mandated by state law included religious affiliation, creating bureaucratic and social barriers for non-Muslims seeking to enter academia, government, or business.
Although Egyptian law maintains that no political party can be created on the basis of religion, several political parties, such as al-Wasat and the Muslim Brotherhood, have strong religious affiliations. Religious leaders, such as Amr Khaled—a popular television preacher—are forming political parties that express and reflect their religious principles, effectively becoming "civic parties with an Islamic reference" rather than religious parties per se. These "Islamist" political parties (including the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Wasat) claim to utilize Islam to foster democracy and the electoral process. But the struggle between Islamist and secular—or rather Islamist and non-Islamist— political organizations continues even after the revolution. Many non-Islamist groups—including secular political groups such as the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and Christian organizations such as the Coptic Youth Union—question the Islamist organizations' claims of support for democratic values and principles.
Not all religious groups will have equal opportunity to form religiously-inspired political parties for the upcoming elections. Pope Shenouda III, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, recognizes that the formation of a Christian equivalent to an Islamist party is unrealistic and counter-productive. Given Egypt's history of discrimination towards non-Muslims, particularly towards Copts, such a party would be considered radical and unappealing to potential members. Instead, Pope Shenouda has encouraged Copts to "join their Moslem brothers in a party they would judge as tolerant and achieving in their hopes." He is advising Copts to be well-informed and aware of any party's aims, agenda, and members.
Because Egypt is ranked as one of the top five worst countries for protecting religious minorities and underrepresented groups, and because it has one of the highest levels of government restrictions and social hostility towards non-Muslim religious groups, the potential impact of religious leaders is promising. International religious analysts, such as Rabbi David Rosen, have advised the United Nations and European Union to include Egypt's religious leaders in discussions promoting freedom in Egypt's new government to "strengthen relations with enlightened, responsible religious authorities." He asserts that to not do so would be "playing into the hands of extremists."
A new representative government should reflect the Egyptian people's diversity, with equal rights and religious freedom for minority and under-represented groups. While non-Muslim religious leaders may not be able to establish political parties, they should lobby political parties to create equal opportunity and promote religious freedom for minorities, eradicate the bureaucratic and social obstacles experienced by non-Muslims, and address the marginalization that minorities experience in Egyptian society —from high official positions to legislative councils and university staff.
Building Civil Society
Although the relatively peaceful nature of the demonstrations proved that Egyptians could transcend differences to remove Mubarak, tensions between religions—stemming from intermarriage, proselytization, building houses of worship, and freedom of religious expression—will continue to pervade Egyptian society. The leaders elected in September cannot alleviate religious tensions without involving qualified, enlightened, and respected religious leaders.
Currently, there are many different religious organizations and leaders involved in promoting civil liberties and building civil society— Shaykh Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt and head of Dar al-Iftaa; George Ishaq, a leading activist and Coptic Christian scholar; Pope Shenouda; the Coptic Youth Union; and al-Wasat are a few. These leaders and organizations are working diligently and creatively across several key areas vital to Egypt's future, both in the near-term and long-term:
Promoting interreligious dialogue. Religion is often used as a tool for inciting conflict, as seen in the escalating violence between Christians and Muslims after the burning of a Coptic church in Soul Village in March. Religious leaders—priests, imams, bishops, and sheikhs—condemned the violence as an alleged attempt of Mubarak's allies to stir sectarian strife, effectively undermining the revolution. After the attack, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf called for a Coptic Commission to be formed to maintain dialogue, in an effort to "rebuild confidence with the Copts and create a spirit of tolerance." Gomaa also condemned the violence and has worked to stress inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue that would end sectarian violence. Religious leaders are creating ample opportunity for religious communities and individuals to deconstruct and reject rumors and stereotypes that feed hatred and bigotry. Such forums for open dialogue across religious lines will be important tools in implementing social and political reform.
Providing social services. Religious leaders are establishing social services and other practical programs that increase educational opportunities, create jobs, and promote political participation. Leaders have made a particular effort to reach out to Egypt's youths; currently, one-half of the population in Egypt is below the age of 25, constituting a "powerful engine of renewal for the country." Amr Khaled, who recently returned to Egypt from Britain, launched a literacy project with Vodafone Egypt and also re-launched his microfinance project, called Insan, which trained young adults to work with poor families, helped establish small profitable projects for them, and eventually re-enrolled the family's children in school. Pope Shenouda is advocating for better quality vocational training in preparatory and secondary schools and is also, along with Coptic Bishop Morcos of Shoubra el Kheima, rebuilding and refurbishing three police stations at the Coptic Church's expense.
Addressing religious tensions. Interfaith marriages, proselytization, building houses of worship, and representation (leadership) in government all conflict with Article 2 of the recently-suspended Egyptian Constitution, which states that Islamic jurisprudence, or shari'a law, is the authority for legislation. Not only do these issues spark legal tensions (as non-Muslims have limitations in marriage, conversion, worshiping, and representation), they also lead to conflict for individual Egyptians and religious organizations. These tensions can only be addressed with concerted involvement from political and religious leaders, since the issues "exist under both civil and religious authority," being both "sacred and secular at the same time." For example, on April 15, 2011 Coptic protesters marched in Tahrir Square to demand a unified law for building houses of worship, the end of legal discrimination, and fair parliamentary representation. State regulation of sacred acts is a clear violation of religious freedom, especially when there is direct interference from the government.
Offering non-violent interpretations. The Qur'an has often been used as a tool of violence and oppression. Egypt's religious leaders should encourage their communities to resist violent interpretations of the Qur'an by neighboring extremist groups and Egyptian individuals and organizations that, though not extremist in title and mission, resort to violence. Religious leaders have the opportunity to reinterpret and adapt sacred texts to positively effect lasting change in political, civil, and social circumstances. In so doing, concepts such as shari'a law (consultation of rulers with ruled), ijma (consensus of community), ijtihad (reinterpretation), and maslaha (public welfare) could support forms of parliamentary governance, representative elections, and religious reform that would protect Egypt's citizens, including religious minorities and women. Currently, there are several Muslim leaders and organizations advocating nonviolence and tolerance, such as Khaled, who has been doing so since early 2000 on mainstream television networks, and al-Wasat and its leader Abul-Ela Madi.
As they work toward the goals outlined above, religious leaders can guide their communities away from a form of government that would manipulate religious institutions for political gain and/or privilege a particular political or religious group. These efforts will foster new forums in which Egyptians can discuss the religious tensions prevalent in civil society. While these tensions will not dissipate overnight, the efforts of religious leaders are the first step towards reform. In a parliamentary Egypt, religious leaders advocating tolerance, moderation, and equality can fill the vacuum left by the recently ousted regime by lobbying political parties to protect religious minorities and women. In civil society, religious leaders and organizations have the potential to employ religion to inhibit bigotry, discrimination, and marginalization. If religious authority figures successfully achieve the goals outlined above, the new regime will be able to accomplish something that Mubarak's despotic rule never did.
 Mona Mogahed, "Islam's Role in Egypt's Secular Revolution," Inside Islam: Dialogues and Debates blog, University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Public Radio, 1 February 2011, http://insideislam.wisc.edu/index.php/archives/6875 (accessed 2 February 2011).
 See Jessica Smelser, "Egypt's ID Cards and the Baha'i Struggle for Privacy," web exclusive, RFIAonline.org, 11 December 2009, http://www.rfiaonline.org/extras/articles/587-egypt-bahai-id-cards (accessed 15 April 2011).
 Al-Wasat was founded in 1996 when members of the Muslim Brotherhood defected from the organization and adopted a platform that interprets shari'a laws within a liberal democratic system. See "Center (al-Wasat) Party," Carnegie Endowment, http://egyptelections.carnegieendowment.org/2010/09/16/center-al-wasat-party (accessed 21 April 2011).
 Mariam Fam, "Egypt Passes Parties Law, Sets Date for Parliamentary Elections," Bloomberg, 28 March 2011, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-03-28/egypt-passes-parties-law-sets-date-for-parliament-elections.html (accessed 10 April 2011).
 Many secular political parties lack credibility since they are considered "atheist" organizations in a country where atheism is considered taboo. As understood here, "secularists" may be religious but oppose religion's politicization. See Hesham Sallam, "Opposition Alliances and Democratization in Egypt, United States Institute of Peace, June 2008, http://www.usip.org/files/resources/USIP_0608.PDF (accessed 23 April 2011) and Shaimaa Fayed, "Egypt secular parties in race for credibility," Reuters, 24 April 2011, http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/04/24/us-egypt-secular-idUSTRE73N15O20110424 (accessed 26 April 2011).
 For example, there has been much debate regarding whether the Muslim Brotherhood will support religious freedom and democratic ideals or whether it will push for the implementation of shari'a law and theocratic government. As it applied for official status as a political party, the Brotherhood said it, "envisions the establishment of a democratic, civil state that draws on universal measures of freedom and justice, with central Islamic values serving all Egyptians regardless of color, creed, political trend, or religion." See "Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Seeks Political Party Status," CNN, 15 February 2011, http://articles.cnn.com/2011-02-15/world/egypt.muslim.brotherhood_1_egypt-s-muslim-brotherhood-opposition-group-islamic?_s=PM:WORLD (accessed 23 April 2011). But Muslim Brotherhood official Essam El-Errian's statement that Islamic theology will be ingrained within Egypt's democracy has international and domestic observers worried that the Muslim Brotherhood, if electorally favored, will establish an Islamic state, in which discrimination and the marginalization of minorities and women will continue. See "Does the Muslim Brotherhood have a Future in Egypt?" Big Peace, 13 February 2011, http://bigpeace.com/ipt/2011/02/13/does-the-muslim-brotherhood-have-a-future-in-egypt/ (accessed 23 April 2011).
 "Pope Shenouda comments on the Egyptian Revolution," 27 February 2011, The British Orthodox Church, http://britishorthodox.org/1676/pope-shenouda-comments-on-the-egyptian-revolution/ (accessed April 14 2011).
 "Podcast: The Religious Minorities in Egypt after Jan. 25th," The Muslim Network for Baha'i Rights, 17 March 2011, http://www.bahairights.org/2011/03/17/podcast-the-religious-minorities-in-egypt-after-jan-25th/ (accessed 27 April 2011).
 "Pope Shenouda comments on the Egyptian Revolution."
 Cornelis Hulsman, "Egypt's Christians After Mubarak," Christianity Today, 11 February 2011, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/march/egyptaftermubarak.html (accessed 14 February 2011).
 Paul-Gordon Chandler, "Clashes and Coalitions: Christians and Muslims in Egypt," The Christian Century, 16 March 2011, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-03/clashes-and-coalitions (accessed 21 March 2011).
 "Copts end their protests after a meeting with Sharaf," Community Times, 14 March 2011, http://www.communitytimesonline.com/art-details.aspx?articleid=678 (accessed 15 April 2011).
 "Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi, Shereen El Feki, and Tyjen Tsai, "Youth Revolt in Egypt, a Country at the Turning Point," Population Reference Bureau, http://www.prb.org/Articles/2011/youth-egypt-revolt.aspx?p=1 (accessed 22 April 2011).
 Ethar El-Katatney, "Amr Khaled reaches out to Upper Egypt," The Daily News Egypt, 27 February 2011, http://www.thedailynewsegypt.com/development/amr-khaled-reaches-out-to-upper-egypt.html (accessed 23 April 2011).
 "Pope Shenouda comments on the Egyptian Revolution."
 Katherine Kaiser, "Coptic Marriage Law and the Church-State Divide in Egypt," web exclusive, RFIAonline.org, 17 September 2010, http://www.rfiaonline.org/extras/articles/678-coptic-marriage-law-and-the-church-state-divide-in-egypt (accessed 15 April 2011).
 Heba Fahmy, "Thousands march from Shoubra to Tahrir in support of rights for Copts," Daily News Egypt, 15 April 2011, http://www.thedailynewsegypt.com/egypt/thousands-march-from-shoubra-to-tahrir-in-support-of-rights-for-copts.html (accessed 15 April 2011).
 In a May 2010 case, the Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court overruled the Coptic Orthodox Church ruling that prohibited divorce and remarriage. See Kaiser, "Coptic Marriage Law and the Church-State Divide in Egypt."
 See Khaled Abou El Fadl, "Islam and the Challenge of Democracy," in Islam and the Challenge of Democracy, ed. Joshua Cohen and Deborah Chasman (Princeton: University Press, 2004), 3-48. Also available at: http://bostonreview.net/BR28.2/abou.html (accessed 15 December 2010); and "The Place of Tolerance in Islam," in The Place of Tolerance in Islam, ed. Joshua Cohen and Ian Lague (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), vii-26.
 John L. Esposito, "Struggle in Islam," in The Place for Tolerance in Islam, ed. Joshua Cohen and Ian Lague (Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), 72-79.
 Amr Khaled's message focuses on the role of the individual within society and encouraging positive behavior, such as non-violence, to reform society, offering an alternative Islamic discourse. See Lindsay Wise, "‘Words from the Heart': New Forms of Islamic Preaching in Egypt," May 2003, St Antony's College, University of Oxford, http://users.ox.ac.uk/%7Emetheses/Wise.html (accessed 22 April 2011). Abul-Ela Madi has examined violence in Egyptian Islamist groups. See Abul-Ela Madi, "Violent Egyptian Islamist Groups: Historical Roots, Intellectual Foundations, and Critical Self-Appraisals," Al-Wasat Party website, March 2004, http://www.alwasatparty.com/article-313.html (accessed 23 April 2011).