Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1179, (9 - 15 January 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1179, (9 - 15 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The road towards full citizenship

For prominent Coptic political figure George Ishak the country’s new constitution is a good basis for citizenship for all Egyptians, he tells Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

“I am in love with life, and no matter how much pain I go through my heart will always be full of love.” These are the words of a famous 1930s song by renowned Egyptian singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. They also supply the ringtone that prominent political figure George Ishak has on his mobile phone.

This is for good reason, since Ishak is an unshakeable optimist. He is a fighter who neither gives up nor loses his faith. He knows that there is always another task to accomplish before “Egypt becomes a real democracy,” and he is convinced that “it would be silly to think that it could all happen overnight, no matter the sacrifices made and the political energy spent.”

“However, if you work hard and if you dare to protest against injustice, you just get on with it. Would anyone have thought ten years ago that an Egyptian Copt would have been at the head of an opposition group like Kifaya? But it happened nonetheless,” he said.

Ten years ago almost to the day, Ishak stood before a Cairo church and shouted “Virgin Mary, let your blessings help us free this country of Hosni Mubarak!” A few weeks later, Ishak, in the company of the by then frail Abdel-Wahab Al-Messiry, a prominent scholar and political rights champion, was walking with a few supporters shouting “Kifaya — Haram!” (Enough Injustice!)

It was this cry that evolved and gained momentum until it led to the 25 January 2011 demonstrations that in turn became a revolution that managed in 18 days to force Mubarak to step down.

During the 18 days of the 25 January Revolution, Ishak stood side by side with other protesters, Muslims and Copts alike. He chatted and shared aspirations with leftists and Muslim Brotherhood protesters with no discrimination between them.

“It was a very rare moment when I thought, when we all thought, that we were collectively acting to build a new reality in which we would all be proud and respected Egyptian citizens,” Ishak recalled with a fading smile.

“And of course at that time we all looked upon the Muslim Brotherhood as our partners in the fight against Mubarak’s rule. I personally had very good ties with their leadership and I used to visit Khairat Al-Shater [the number two man in the now outlawed group] in prison. He even invited me to his daughter’s wedding.”

Ishak, who had long defended the Muslim Brotherhood, is not reluctant to say that it was the leadership of this group that “betrayed the revolution during the rule of former president Mohamed Morsi and derailed the citizenship cause, not just for the Copts but for Egyptians in general.”

“Citizenship was not their call, which is precisely why things went wrong and why we had to have the 30 June Revolution,” he said.

Today, Ishak is convinced, as he told Al-Ahram Weekly a few days before the celebrations of Coptic Christmas on 7 January, that the draft constitution that will be put up for referendum on 14 and 15 January is a key step towards establishing citizenship as a ruling concept in Egypt.

“Here, I am not just talking about the Copts — and other Christians of course — but about all those who have been treated as lesser citizens and who deserve justice. I am talking about the poor, who are a majority and not a minority, and I am talking about women, who are not a minority, and I am of course talking about the Copts, who are fewer in number but who are fully-fledged and dedicated Egyptian citizens.”

“I hate to think in Muslim versus Copt terms. I like to think in terms of the citizen who does his duty towards his country and who is well-treated and respected by the state,” Ishak said.

However, he added in a reluctant tone that “of course, full citizenship is still missing. We thought it was close at hand when we were in Tahrir, but now we have heard that a new group of prosecutors has been formed recently without a single Copt on board and that only a few Copts are on board in the newly admitted class at the military academy. It is all very sad, but this is a long and hard journey that we are taking and that we will take.”

Ishak is convinced that despite “some things here and there” the amended draft of the constitution is helpful in this respect because it clearly underlines that all citizens are equal and stipulates the establishment of a commission to combat discrimination. “We can build on these solid blocks. We will build on these solid blocks,” he said.

Yet, Ishak agrees that the text of the new constitution, which he is “hopeful, very hopeful, will be adopted with an impressive majority,” is not enough in and by itself to pave the way towards full citizenship.

“Of course, there are other requirements,” Ishak said. Prominent among these, he added, were the end of sectarian incitement through the media and to the out-of-court settlements of incidents of sectarian violence.

“If we want to see an end to the attacks on churches, we must not overlook the fact that those who attack churches get away with the attacks more often than not because of the out-of-court settlements that spare them the consequences of litigation,” Ishak argued.

Full citizenship, Ishak is convinced, “does not require the elimination of the constitutional reference to Egypt as an Islamic state. The fact of the matter is that Egypt is an Islamic state. Think about it from the cultural point of view: Egypt is an Islamic state in this respect.”

Islam, Ishak said, is not against citizenship, and it is “certainly for justice for all.” He added that “I am willing to live in an ‘Islamic Egypt,’ if this was defined by Al-Azhar, but not if this was defined by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Ishak has what he qualifies as “more pertinent” concerns regarding the constitution, however, “especially about the trial of civilians before military courts.” However, he is convinced that these concerns can be met by drafting new laws that will be adopted by parliament once it meets.

“I like to think of the constitution as a set of guiding principles that should help us produce the right laws. This applies to everything, including the matter of citizenship, and it is why I am going to vote in favour of the new constitution,” he said.

Ishak knows that attempts to produce laws that fix matters of citizenship will not be easy — “not because of the Islamists, however, because I don’t think those will be more than 15 per cent in the next parliament,” but because of embedded misconceptions that need to be challenged. “But this needs to be done gradually, and we have to work on it knowing that it will take some time,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ishak is hopeful that a decent presence of Coptic MPs in the next parliament will help “all Egyptians to produce the laws” that will meet the concerns of large minorities — children and women particularly — through a new package of regulations that will get the state to provide better education and health care for all.

The hitherto meagre Coptic presence in parliament is not an easy problem to resolve, however, Ishak admits. This is because of the embedded misconceptions that make it almost impossible for a Copt to run as an individual in the elections and win. It is also because the “weak state of most political parties” will not make it plausible for the parliamentary elections to be conducted on a party-list system.

“We are lobbying for an electoral law that will allow for the elections to be conducted on an individual system for two-thirds of the seats and on a list system for the remaining third. We are also working to produce a unified nationwide list of 150 candidates, half of them workers and peasants who lost their 50 per cent share of parliamentary seats under the recent amendments, and the other half the representatives of women, Copts and other disadvantaged or marginalised groups,” Ishak explained.

The new parliament is essential, he insists, to securing the march towards promoting the concept of citizenship — not just in the sense of ending, or eliminating, anti-minority discrimination, but also of establishing the right parameters for managing citizen-state relationships. “Again, this will be about the responsibilities of the state towards all citizens without discrimination between them,” he explained.

The next government and next head of state are no less important factors, Ishak argued, in promoting the concept of citizenship, “a key issue of the 25 January and 30 June Revolutions that aimed to get all Egyptians to live with dignity, freedom and without fear or want.”

“We need a statesman to run the country, someone with political skills, someone who can help things happen in a smooth way without being harsh in pushing for them. I immediately think of Amr Moussa, whose firm management of the Committee of Fifty that drafted the [amended] constitution was much appreciated. The next head of state should be someone like Amr Moussa, or even Amr Moussa himself, who could help matters move forward in a cautious way without having the country go through more hiccups.”

That said, Ishak is not willing to go against the wide public base that wants to nominate minister of defence and head of the army Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi as the country’s next president. “I am not saying Al-Sisi should not run, but I am saying that maybe he could run next time rather than this time round — although I hear otherwise from some very good sources,” Ishak said.

For Ishak, Al-Sisi is “in no uncertain terms a national hero. It was no small risk that he took when he decided to bow to the demands of the people and intervene to remove Morsi. He put his own life on the line. It was a glorious thing that spared the country from the schemes of the Muslim Brotherhood, which wanted to take control of this country,” Ishak said.

However, he added, “the presence of Al-Sisi at the helm of the Armed Forces is still crucial because Egypt faces considerable national-security challenges. These are so large that they could consume considerable time and energy throughout the next few years before matters are settled. Al-Sisi could then run in the next presidential elections.”

Ishak shrugs his shoulders at the question of Al-Sisi being the candidate preferred by the Copts in view of his record in crushing the Islamists, just as retired military leader Omar Suleiman would have been their candidate had he been able to join the race in 2012 and Ahmed Shafik was and to an extent still is.

“The assumption there is that the Copts are a homogenous entity. I beg to differ. There might be a preference, and of course the bad times that the Copts saw during the rule of Morsi is a matter to take into consideration, but no one could say that all the Copts would vote for Al-Sisi or that the Church could get all the Copts to vote for one candidate. It did not happen last year, and it certainly will not happen this time round either,” Ishak argued.

“I think it is fair to say that Al-Sisi is the preferred choice of all those who have more fears than hopes and of all those who are worried about a possible political revival of the Muslim Brotherhood. This could include a group of Copts as well as others.”

Ishak is also not willing to accept the argument that the vast majority of the Copts, either in Egypt or in the diaspora, has a tradition of following the preference of the Church, which has come out in favour of Al-Sisi. “This assumption overlooks the fact that Pope Shenouda III, who was at the helm of the Coptic Orthodox Church for 40 years, called on the Copts not to join the anti-Mubarak demonstrations in 2011 but that many still went to Tahrir Square. It was the Church that had to come round and revisit its position later in the day,” he said.

Moreover, Ishak is not willing to accept the argument that the ascent of Al-Sisi, who was head of military intelligence under Mubarak when the 25 January Revolution happened, amounts to a reassembly of the pillars of the Mubarak regime against the backdrop of the resumption of anti-opposition security tactics only three years after the revolution.

He acknowledges that the performance of the law-enforcement bodies “reveals an enormous lack of skill — and in some cases a hidden desire to revenge themselves against the 25 January Revolution,” however. He also acknowledges that some public figures, Muslims and Copts alike, have been almost jumping the gun to avenge the 25 January Revolution.

“The coming weeks and months are going to be hard, and it will take the collective will of all Egyptians, as we saw in the 25 January and 30 June revolutions, to get through this hardship. My bet tomorrow, as yesterday, is on the collective will of all Egyptians — Copts and Muslims, and women and men.”

“I think we will get through it and help put our country on the path to a more democratic Egypt where the rule of law is established and where all citizens, no matter their faith, gender or economic situation, will be equal before the law.”

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