On Religion, Politics, and Democratic Legitimacy in Egypt

Since the 2011 January revolution that toppled Egypt’s former regime, the relationship between religion and politics has dominated debates in Egyptian society. The subsequent transitional phase inaugurated a difficult journey toward democracy, rule of law, a citizenship-based state, and power devolution.

Since the 2011 January revolution that toppled Egypt’s former regime, the relationship between religion and politics has dominated debates in Egyptian society. The subsequent transitional phase inaugurated a difficult journey toward democracy, rule of law, a citizenship-based state, and power devolution. During this time, religion and politics have been leveraged toward different aims by conflicting groups and institutions, resulting in calls to keep religion separate from political conflict and the workings of the state and its institutions. But the increasing conflation of religion and politics has weakened Egypt’s ability to separate them in a manner compatible with a political system, society, constitution, and legal code based on democracy, citizenship, and power devolution.

Constitutional and Legal Framework

The 2012 constitution is an important example of these interim results. The writers of the constitution ignored the long-standing debate in Egypt over the question of the “religion of the state” and did not change the existing stipulation that “Islam is the religion of the state.” They also disregarded demonstrations by intellectuals and political figures (myself among them) protesting the notion that Islam is the religion of the state and arguing that the new constitution not identify a state religion but instead emphasize a state based on citizenship and tolerance of religious diversity.

The relationship between religion and politics has complicated efforts to develop a constitutional and legal framework for the postrevolution Egyptian state. During different stages of the transitional phase, this has led to results that are dangerously misaligned with the principles of democracy and citizenship.

Article Four of the constitution stipulates that legislative questions related to sharia law should be addressed in consultation with the official religious institution, al-Azhar. This stipulation gives al-Azhar a privileged role that is in conflict with efforts to establish democracy by allowing unelected religious figures to gain influence over legislation that should be handled solely by elected officials accountable to the people.

The 2012 constitution also makes references in a number of articles to the importance of respecting values, ethics, and social norms in the exercise of freedoms and personal and public rights. But it then empties these rights and freedoms of their significance by stipulating means to suppress them through traditional ethical frameworks that claim to rely on religious legitimacy. In violation of internationally recognized human rights conventions, the constitution ensures religious freedom only to the followers of the three monotheistic religions and restricts the freedoms of those following other religions.

During the past two years, several constitutional and legal results have emerged. New laws on the exercise of political rights, election procedures, and political parties have not stipulated a ban on the use of religion for political, electoral, or partisan purposes. This has provided a legal loophole for the use of religious slogans in politics and prevented the imposition of penalties on groups exploiting religious spaces for electoral campaigning and other political purposes. This situation is contradictory to inclusive, citizenship-based politics. It also leaves society vulnerable to serious risks related to political and partisan affiliations as well as to electoral behavior based on religious identity instead of ideas and goals common to all citizens, regardless of religion.

The past two years have witnessed the systematic frustration of efforts to introduce a set of legal amendments to support equal citizenship, such as laws against discrimination and sectarian violence, laws standardizing the establishment and maintenance of houses of worship, and efforts to remove indication of a person’s religion from identification cards, which would constitute a symbolic victory for citizenship.

Political Framework

In addition to the contradictions between the constitutional and legal results of the transitional phase and the principles of democracy and citizenship resulting from the mixing of religion and politics in postrevolution Egypt, another set of political contradictions has resulted from the ongoing use of religion and politics by conflicting groups. These contradictions are preventing the success of efforts to foster democracy, citizenship, and power devolution.

The first contradiction has to do with the growing importance of religious identity, issues related to values and ethics, and the polarization of halal (sanctioned by Islamic law) and haram (forbidden by Islamic law) in politics over the past two years. This has resulted in citizens basing their electoral choices in referendums and elections, their assessments of legislative and executive authorities’ performance, and their acceptance or rejection of policies on religious considerations rather than rational ones predicated on information and personal preferences. While some of these personal preferences would be based on values or ethics, others would undoubtedly be related to political contentment, economic and social interests, rights, and personal freedoms. This is being obscured by the emphasis on religious considerations.

The question of how to vote in a referendum on the constitution or constitutional amendment was conflated with religion. Voting “yes” was construed as halal, while voting “no” was presented as strictly haram and an act of hostility against Islam. Electoral behavior in the parliamentary and presidential elections was divided along the lines of Islamic religious identity.

This dualism replaced objective, information-based assessments of the elected president’s performance, the performance of his party and other religious right-wing parties in the Shura Council, and the preparation of the constitution. Supporting the Muslim Brotherhood president became a religious duty, even among workers, farmers, and Egyptians in low-income households, who were negatively impacted by neoliberal policies, and among women, who have not been guaranteed equality, rights, and freedoms. Opposing the elected president or his party because of the continuous violations of human rights, the repercussions of negative policies, or the absence of transparency is construed as hostile to Islam and the president’s “Islamic project”—regardless of the actual meaning of this project—and as a violation of proper values and ethics.

The second contradiction is the severe marginalization of debate on the meaning and details of implemented and pending policies, especially compared to discussions on religious identity, values, ethics, and the halal/haram binary. During the past two years, right-wing, liberal, and leftist political leaders have repeatedly emphasized the concepts of social justice, the social contract, a just transition, balanced development, labor policies, social insurance, and fair taxes. In spite of this, the Egyptian public was never offered a detailed and specific plan to implement these concepts.

Furthermore, the elected president, his government, and his party have fallen into the trap of arrogance by failing to provide the Egyptian people with solutions to economic and social issues or to offer explanations for their policies on issues like tax amendments, the Suez Canal project, and external loans. At the same time, the liberal and leftist opposition has fallen into the trap of making generalizations and failing to offer alternative solutions when criticizing the policies of the president and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Debates resulting from the mixing of religion and politics occupy the energies of political parties, and the right wing has easily found means of achieving good results at the ballot box, mobilizing popular movements, and placating the street. But the absence of information and the lack of transparency resulting from limited debates have created a political system that fundamentally circumscribes the ability of citizens to exercise their democratic rights within a framework of rational, information-based decisionmaking.

The third political contradiction is related to the way in which mixing religion and politics polarizes debates and interactions between parties and political forces. This polarization is transmitted to the citizenry, limiting the possibility of pluralism and suppressing minority opinions, both of which are key to developing policies based on democracy, citizenship, and power devolution.

In the name of religion and supporting political catchphrases—such as stability, prosperity, and the will of the people—the citizen is called upon to vote “yes” in constitutional referendums. Citizens who vote “no” are labeled as anti-religion, making it difficult for Egyptians to express their views and their democratic right to vote as they see fit. And in the name of religion and the same political catchphrases, there have also been calls for protests and popular mobilization to confront liberals and leftists, who are known as either enemies of Islam, sharia, and religious identity or conspirators against the legitimate president and his “Islamic project.”

The same strategy has also been used to call upon citizens to focus only on hard work and stability, thereby delegitimizing protests by liberals and leftists and casting them as violent and anarchic. Citizens influenced by political forces that deploy religion in politics use polarizing terms to classify political opponents, designating rivals “unbelievers” and “traitors” and calling for their exclusion from the political process and even for physical violence against them. The political arena does not accept pluralism, enhancing the contrast with principles of democracy, citizenship, and power devolution.

The fourth contradiction is related to a structural problem in Egyptian political life that is the result of the mixing of religion and politics by political forces affiliated with the religious Right that promote separation between political work and advocacy, educational, and community initiatives. The structural problem is that political work is not limited to political parties that compete for electoral support from citizens by offering visions and policies; gaining popular support bases and social and symbolic capital through efficiency, integrity, and transparency; and working to promote democracy, citizenship, and power devolution. As a result, the religious Right’s political parties cut corners, relying on related groups to carry out advocacy, education, and community programs that build bases of political support instead of relying on independent political work to garner votes.

An important irony, the implications of which must be investigated, is that the Muslim Brotherhood, which as an opposition party was successful for many decades in building social capital for its political work based on transparency, integrity, and efficiency in the face of a corrupt and failing regime, is now losing a significant amount of its social capital because it is showing a lack of transparency and integrity and limited efficiency in running the government.

The fifth and final contradiction is related to efforts to promote democracy, citizenship, and power devolution that are being affected by the conflation of religion and politics, the inability of our society to disentangle them, and the increasingly backward nature of political life. This backwardness is clearly seen in the need for liberal and leftist parties to justify their positions in terms of religious symbolism, identity, and ethics. It is also visible in the inability of many liberal and leftist political practitioners who advocate the principle of full equality between men and women to translate this belief into demands for laws and policies that support affirmative action for women.

Likewise, this backwardness is apparent in the confused stances of liberal and leftist parties toward al-Azhar, and the willingness of some to accept a legislative and political role for al-Azhar, as in the recent Islamic bonds issue, and not limit its influence to community issues, like the renunciation of violence document.

Backwardness is again seen in the hesitation of liberals and leftists to face growing extremism and hatred of the other, namely the Copts, due to their fear of being labeled unbelievers and traitors by the religious Right. This failure to address extremism leads to more violence and sectarian tension in our society and threatens the goal of citizenship based on equal rights.

Backwardness is also manifested in Egyptian society’s inability to engage in a debate about the amendment of personal status and family laws, despite repeated attempts to amend female-initiated divorce law and child custody laws to ensure the rights of women. The backward nature of political life is an impediment to democracy, citizenship, and power devolution, all of which thrive in societies not limited by redlines and free to pursue nontraditional ideas and deepen social equality.

Societal Framework

In addition to the constitutional, legal, and political contradictions with the principles of democracy, citizenship, and power devolution resulting from the conflation of religion and politics and the decline in our ability to disentangle the two, another set of societal contradictions prevents Egypt from developing rule of law, equality, and freedom—essential components of a modern state.

The conflation of religion and politics destroys the foundation of justice: equal opportunities for all citizens without discrimination. The growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood among Egypt’s executive and administrative authorities through the appointment of relatives and associates is similar to the marginalization of Copts in legislative and executive institutions and to denials of wrongdoing by political groups that mix religion and politics. These phenomena do not differ from the assured success in parliamentary and presidential elections of candidates from the religious Right due to their deployment of religious slogans and symbols and their claims of commitment to value systems that are linked to the conflation of religion and politics. These are all fundamentally issues of the abolishment of equal opportunities, the establishment of strong social divisions, the absence of legitimacy, and the presence of discrimination in appointments to public office, institutional representation, and electoral opportunities—all of which serve to demolish the foundations of democracy.

Mixing religion and politics starkly contradicts legitimate social equality and pushes Egypt further away from establishing the foundations of democracy. In addition to the dangerous lack of equality between citizens before the law in Egypt today, the country is also experiencing the phenomenon of “hierarchical citizenship.” Citizens who support the vision of the religious Right occupy a privileged position, but liberals, leftists, and nationalists—along with women, Copts, and non-Sunni Muslims—are treated as second-class citizens. In addition to demolishing the foundations for building democracy, the collapse of social equality and the introduction of hierarchical citizenship open the door wide for exclusion, silencing, and violence.

The increasing conflation of religion and politics leads to a number of restrictions on citizens’ enjoyment of personal and public freedoms and their ability to exercise these freedoms within a framework of openness, transparency, and commitment to the public good. The ability of non-covered women to be present in public spaces and move freely in professional and personal capacities has rapidly decreased. Efforts to restrict women’s freedoms have relied upon a toxic mixture of verbal violence that questions women’s religious commitment and justifications of physical violence against them by extremists.

In addition, the ability of followers of non-monotheistic religions to practice openly is constitutionally banned and restricted by the religious Right. The same restrictions apply to Shia, who are viewed as hostile by a religious Right suffering from the malady of sectarianism.

The freedom of Egyptian citizens to put forward nontraditional ideas and propose other human value systems that differ from traditional ethics is restricted by those who claim ownership over the absolute truth. The end result is a move away from the foundations necessary to build democracy and the principles of social freedom, without which we cannot achieve citizenship or power devolution.

Amr Hamzawy is a professor of political science and public policy at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo. He was a member of the Egyptian parliament in 2012.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  It can be accessed online at: http://egyptelections.carnegieendowment.org/2013/06/03/on-religion-politics-and-democratic-legitimacy-in-egypt