Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1317, (27 October - 2 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Parliament and religious IDs

Discrimination is prohibited under the Egyptian Constitution, but parliament is absent without leave when it comes to writing laws to make this prohibition effective, writes Mohamed Salmawy

Al-Ahram Weekly

One of the curiosities of that circus erected inside the parliament building is that attempts to apply the provisions of the constitution — presumably our lawmakers’ first and most important duty — are happening outside parliament. Although the House of Representatives has just begun its second session, it still appears totally unaware of the responsibility it was elected to perform. The President of Cairo University, Gaber Gad Nassar, is way ahead of all the members of that parliamentary comedy team in applying a basic constitutional article: The one prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation. Professor Nassar ordered the removal of the ‘religion’ field in all papers and documents issued by the university that had divided students into ‘Muslims’ and ‘Christians’.

The Cairo University president, who himself had been one of the members of the commission charged with drafting the constitution, decided not to sit around and wait for parliament to wake up and tend to its historic duty to promulgate the laws needed to complement and complete the constitution. He therefore took the initiative, using his legal authorities, to implement the first attempt to put the abovementioned constitutional principle into effect. The Engineers Syndicate, headed by Tarek Al-Nabarawi, soon followed suit, becoming the first syndicate in Egypt to apply that principle.

Constitutional Article 53, entitled “Equality in Rights and Duties”, states:

“Citizens are equal before the law, possess equal rights and public duties, and may not be discriminated against on the basis of religion, belief, sex, origin, race, colour, language, disability, social class, political or geographical affiliation, or for any other reason.

“Discrimination and incitement to hatred are crimes punishable by law.

“The state shall take all necessary measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination, and the law shall regulate the establishment of an independent commission for this purpose.”

There immediately comes to mind, in this regard, a well-known incident related by Naguib Mahfouz. When still a student, our most famous novelist won a grant to study abroad, but the university administration at the time withheld it from him because his name sounded Christian. That incident was not unique. It was indicative of a general trend in society. Professor Nassar must have been thinking of cases of this sort when he issued his landmark decision that I hope remains in force and is not ignored after his term as university president comes to an end next year.

As we see above, the same constitutional article calls for the establishment of an independent anti-discrimination commission. The House of Representatives was supposed to legislate for the creation of this commission. That the parliament has so far failed to do this suggests that it is not interested in ending discrimination between Egyptian citizens and, indeed, that it is not interested in applying the constitution.

When MP Anisa Hassouna submitted a bill for this purpose, the House of Representatives put discussion of the bill on hold in spite of the fact that the constitution explicitly states that it is our lawmakers’ duty to issue the necessarily legislation to create the mechanisms to put its principles into effect. Although the constitution states that “discrimination and incitement to hatred are crimes punishable by law,” such acts will go unpunished as long as lawmakers do not draft the required laws and regulations.

Article 53 is not the only constitutional provision that affirms equality between all citizens and criminalises discrimination.

The bill that MP Hassouna submitted stipulates the authorities and jurisdictions that would be accorded to the anti-discrimination commission so as to enable it to achieve its aims. It also proposes that the number of members on the commission would be equal to the number of Egyptian governorates so that a commission member could be appointed to head each of the commission’s governorate branches. The bill also calls for the autonomy of commission members during the performance of their duties and prohibits them undertaking any activities that might constitute a conflict of interest (as is the case with ministers under the law). It also states that the commission would be funded by an independent budget and it mentions the sources of this budget.

I recently received an important letter from Fouad Riad, an international criminal court judge, saying, “It is regrettable that all state institutions have not yet (and perhaps have not dared to) eliminate the ‘religion’ field from all official documents in spite of the provisions of successive Egyptian constitutions and the stipulations of binding international conventions to which Egypt is a state party, all of which prohibit discrimination between citizens on the basis of religion or gender, and in spite of the fact that individuals among the Egyptian population have suffered from actual if not official discrimination in many government agencies which acted on the discrimination that has been undertaken by various institutions, such as the passport authority which designates the identity and means of treating each Egyptian citizen. I recall in this regard my attempt, at the time I served as president of the Egyptian International Law Society in the 1990s, to eliminate the ‘religion’ field from that society’s ID cards and the official rejection that I encountered. Perhaps the reason at the time was because of the effective power wielded by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had no regard for the unity and cohesion of the state, as would later become apparent. Certainly, today, there can be no excuse for persisting in practices conducive to unconstitutional discrimination.”

Judge Riad continues:“I have taken advantage of the wise decision on the part of the Cairo University president to eliminate the ‘religion’ field from university documents and to prohibit discrimination between students in order to sound the alarm on the danger that looms over Egypt and that results from the irresponsible course that fuels discrimination between citizens in all aspects of life. I have been moved towards this end by my practical experience and personal testimony in my former capacity as an international war crimes tribunal judge. I saw first hand the disintegration of a large country, Yugoslavia, into three statelets as the result of incitement to hatred and enmity between different religious groups and the persecution of weaker religious communities by the dominant religious groups. I am also motivated by the growth of hatred and calls to violence by Muslim majority populations against Christian minority communities that I have sensed up-close during investigations I conducted throughout Egypt when I headed the Fact-Finding Commission and, before that, as a member of the National Council for Human Rights. That behaviour has made coexistence very difficult and, perhaps, impossible. The time has come — if it is not too late — for the government to take the resolute and necessary stance required to put an end to the shocking and disgraceful discrimination that has become a part of life in Egyptian society. The government and conscientious citizens must bring to bear all possible material and moral means to eliminate the ignorant promotion of religious fanaticism that feeds this phenomenon.”

Another important statement was issued by the Egyptian Institution to Protect the Constitution in support of the decisions by Cairo University and the Engineers Syndicate. The statement called on all other official bodies to follow their lead.

Where is parliament in all this? Do its members sense how disgraceful it is for parliament that others are acting where our legislature should? Do they sense anything at all?

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