Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Our identity crisis

The focus on identity in political debate since March 2011 was a diversion from the revolution and shouldn’t continue to hijack the modern Egyptian state, writes Mohamed Al-Araby

Al-Ahram Weekly

Recent debate on questions of identity, stemming from the writing and rewriting of Egyptian institutions, has been particularly acrimonious.

Articles 2, 3 and 219 in the 2012 constitution are once again the subject of endless bickering between Islamists and seculars.

In the midst of this feud over identity, the fact that many seem to forget is that constitutional texts do not create the identity of a nation, but only reflect it.

Since 25 January 2011, identity politics have taken up considerable space in our political scene, so much so that some forget that the January Revolution had no desire, interest, or aspiration to express, alter, or affirm the nation’s identity. The declared goals of the revolution that brought down the Hosni Mubarak regime focussed on social justice and democratisation.

It was the post-revolutionary dynamics that brought identity politics into the political game, mostly because of the alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.

The emotive thrust that the Islamists injected into the political scene — geared as it was to discrediting their secular, liberal and leftist adversaries, and focussed on matters of identity — is what diverted the revolution from its true course, leading to an ideological battle that is at once divorced from the goals of the revolution and politically disruptive.

Questions of identity, with their religious overtones, which arose in the March 2011 referendum, are still with us today. Instead of moving forward according to an agenda of justice and equality, as the youths who sparked off the revolution had intended, the country was mired in an irrelevant power struggle over Islam, minorities, the nature of the state, and the role of religious institutions.

In their bid for political power, the Islamists turned Sharia into a cause celebre, and Article 2 of the constitution into a battle cry. Divisive as it was, this tactic won them a majority in the first post-revolutionary parliament in which debate continued to focus on identity rather than move to the substantive tasks a nation in transition was supposed to address.

In the 2012 constitution, the Islamists fought for Sharia every step of the way, insinuating it into articles related to citizen rights and freedoms, and using it to impart a newfound sectarianism on a country known for its cultural and religious diversity.

In the months that followed, Egypt suddenly became part to the regional Sunni-Shia rivalry, something it had managed to avoid for centuries. The sectarian arguments, and their lethal consequences, could be traced to the Salafist-inspired Article 219 that reads: “The principles of Islamic Sharia include its comprehensive evidence and its fundamental and legal foundations and its venerated sources in the doctrines of the Sunni community and Muslim majority.”

The identity politics that the Islamists, especially the Salafis, brought into the scene not only fuelled strife between Muslims and Christians, but turned the Shias into a target of revenge, all of which hastened the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime on 3 July 2013.

The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood, however, didn’t signal the fall of identity politics. The Salafis, who distanced themselves from the discredited Brotherhood, have not abandoned their obsession with the question of identity. As the surviving representative of political Islam, the Nour Party is spearheading the battle over identity, digging in its heels to preserve Article 219, thus reigniting the same divisions that wreaked havoc on Egypt’s politics for the past year or so.

Salafi politicians view identity as their raison d’etre. To some, this may seem disruptive, irrational, or simply irrelevant. But to the Salafis, whose entry into politics was hinged upon the question of identity, the question of identity outweighs everything else — including democracy, justice, human rights, etc.

Now that the Muslim Brotherhood is out of the scene, the Nour Party wants to establish its credentials as the primary advocate of the country’s Sunni-Muslim identity. The Nour has rejected the use of the term “civil” to describe the state. It has opposed the use of “non-Muslims” as a substitution for “Christians and Jews”, in order to limit the scope of religious tolerance. And it has fought a rearguard battle to maintain Article 219.

The Nour knows that this is a risky gamble, one that may undermine its tenuous position in the 50-member committee now rewriting the constitution. So it has made what it considers to be a concession, offering to drop Article 219 in return for the word “principles” to be dropped from the expression “principles of Islamic Sharia” mentioned in Article 2. Unless this “compromise” is accepted, the Nour Party threatens to pull out of the rewriting committee.

For now, the Islamists — except the Nour Party — have been edged out of the political scene. But their exclusion was not enough to put the question of identity to rest.

To many, it is clear that the identity of a nation cannot be determined by a group of people sitting in a room, or by a textual reference, even if enshrined in the constitution. But, curiously enough, it is a question that has consumed much of the country’s time, and is likely to continue to do so in the future.

The Egyptian state, even if it tries, cannot tell the nation what kind of identity it should have. Questions such as the interaction between state and church, state and mosque, church and mosque cannot be resolved in a debate among a group of people, however educated, popular or elected.

So let’s admit it, the question of identity will not go away. It will be used and abused by any number of political players for their own advantage.

The problem is also not going to go away, and still needs to be confronted. The authors of the 1923 and 1954 constitutions were aware of the problem, and they spelled out their position. By standing up for a secular state that offers equal treatment to all citizens without discrimination on the basis of religion or clan, they paved the way for the modern state that was handed down to us.

You cannot end the debate over identity, but you can channel it in the right direction, and you can ensure that the role of the state will be one of progress rather than reaction in matters of equality and rights.

This is why the authors of our constitution must stand up for a modern state, not a sectarian one, and they must strive to keep religion out of politics.


The writer is a researcher with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

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