Over the past decades, numerous polls have demonstrated that the majority of Egyptians want shari’a—or Islamic principles—applied to parts of their country's legal system. Egypt’s constitution reflects this: Article 2 of the constitution states that shari’a is the principle source of legislation.
Even with the popular support that Article 2 has in Egypt, it has also been the source of heated controversy. Voices from the Coptic Orthodox Christian community in Egypt, which makes up 12 per cent of the population, contest what they perceive as implied discrimination against the non-Muslim minority in this article. Secularist human rights and pro-democracy activists express similar views, saying that the application of Islamic law is incompatible with democracy, which they argue can exist only in a secular state.
They point, for example, to contentious court cases involving Egypt's family law—which is partly governed by Islamic law, as well as to restrictions on building churches and the question of whether a Copt may become president. They see these examples as reasons to limit the role of Islamic law in domestic policy, especially as it applies to non-Muslim religious minorities.
But in the midst of the public debates involving secularists and Coptic activists, on the one hand, and Islamic political groups—especially the Muslim Brotherhood, which is often in the media spotlight when it comes to discussions on Islamic law—on the other, there is an alternative middle way. In this middle way the concepts of shari’a, democracy and secularism would exist alongside one another as part of a united political system, without compromising the fundamental tenets of any of the three concepts.
Advocates of this approach believe in the rule of the people and the supremacy of law, and feel that lawmakers should be chosen by the people. They still see Islamic law as a frame of reference as long as it is accepted by the majority through a civil process in which elected officials have the final say. This approach would be different from other approaches, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s, which requires the approval of religious scholars before laws are ultimately passed.
Along those lines, Egypt must frame its own model in accordance with its history, culture and, above all, the will of its people. Democracy and secularism are adopted in various ways in different nations: the French and Turkish models, which strictly regulate religion in public life in order to preserve democracy, are different from the US system, in which religion is relatively influential in politics. In each of these examples the unique relationship between religion and the political system suits the characteristics of the particular nation.
Within this framework, Egypt’s Christian minority must be entitled to all the civil rights that minorities enjoy in democracies, such as the right to run for presidential and parliamentary elections, the right to present bills to the parliament and the right to equality before the law. But this doesn’t mean that they will be granted all their demands, such as removing Article 2 from the Egyptian constitution, a demand would ignite resentment from the majority and fuel sectarian differences.
It is important to note that in no democracy have all minority requests been fulfilled. For instance, the hijab (headscarf) ban in schools in France is against the wishes of the country's Muslim minority, but it was supported by elected French lawmakers.
One of the symbolic issues when it comes to the relationship between minority rights and Islamic law in Egypt is whether a Copt may run for president. If a Copt wants to run for president of Egypt, he or she should have the right, pledging to conform to Egyptian laws and the will of the majority. It will be left up to the people to elect him or her, or not.
Contrary to what many might think, it is not shari’a that stands in the way. There are interpretations of shari’a that find the presidency, in modern times, to be a civil position that does not entitle the president to make major decisions unless they are in line with the people’s will and the country’s values.
It is Egypt's current political state of affairs—not shari’a—that has prevented anyone, other than President Hosni Mubarak—whether Muslim or Christian—from assuming the role of the presidency over the past 28 years. Democracy has not taken root in Egypt yet.
Copts should continue to fight for their rights, but without infringing upon the majority’s values by calling for the removal of Islamic principles from politics entirely. Democratic progress in Egypt does not necessitate the removal of shari’a, an essential element of the country’s identity, but requires reforms of the existing system and enhanced rights for the country’s minorities.
Copts and Muslims should unite in their call for democracy. Together, they can lead Egypt to a model that works for the country’s unique culture and society, and guarantees freedom for all.
* Sara Khorshid is an internationally published Egyptian journalist who covers the politics, culture and society of Egypt and the Muslim world, as well as Muslim-Western relations. This article is part of a series on Islamic law and non-Muslim minorities written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).