CAIRO – With Egyptian voters approving a new Islamist-backed constitution, fear has heightened that it will lead toward an Islamic theocracy and undercut the rights of women, Christians and other minorities.
Such tensions, however, have led the country’s Christians to pray for God’s hand to be at work.
“Please know that God is good to His [Egyptian] church,” one Egyptian Christian said at an interdenominational prayer meeting of more than 10,000 people. “We are really blessed and see this time of tension as a chance for us to work for the Kingdom of God.”
Media reports indicate the constitution was approved by about 65 percent of voters in a two-stage referendum Dec. 16 and 22. The vote was marked by low turnout and allegations of fraud voiced by opposition groups.
Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, hailed the document as the start of a “new republic” and a charter that enshrines political freedoms and balanced powers in government, according to the Associated Press (AP).
“We don’t want to return to an era of one opinion and fake, manufactured majorities. The maturity and consciousness [of voters] heralds that Egypt has set on a path of democracy with no return,” Morsi said in a speech, according to AP. “Regardless of the results, for the sake of building the nation, efforts must unite. There is no alternative to a dialogue that is now a necessity.”
Opponents have alleged that voting procedure violations tarnished the results, that Islamists had intimidated Christians or blocked their access to the polls, and that low turnout for the referendum – about 33 percent – cast doubt over the constitution’s legitimacy.
Opposition leaders said in a news conference that they would use any peaceful means to stop its implementation, The New York Times reported.
“This is a constitution that lacks the most important prerequisite for a constitution: consensus,” said Hamdeen Sabahi, a former presidential candidate, according to The Times. “This means we can’t build our future based on this text at all.”
One of the main points of contention regarding the constitution is the role of Islam in legislation, which The Times said led the Coptic Church to pull its representatives from the constitutional assembly.
According to a Voice of America news report, the new constitution is similar to the old 1971 charter in that it names Islam as Egypt’s official religion and establishes Islamic law, also known as Sharia, as the main source of legislation.
But it differs in that it actually defines the principles of Sharia as including “evidence, rules, jurisprudence and sources” accepted by Sunni Islam. The document also states that scholars from Al-Azhar, the most respected school in Sunni Islam, must be consulted on all Sharia-related matters.
Voice of America reported that the constitution guarantees freedom of belief to Islam, Christianity and Judaism, permitting them to perform rituals and establish places of worship “as regulated by law.” However, the charter also outlaws insults to Islam’s prophets and does not explicitly bar discrimination against women.
AP reported that although Morsi called for dialogue with the constitution’s opponents, Egypt’s chief prosecutor – a Morsi appointee – ordered an investigation into opposition leaders over charges they committed treason by inciting Morsi’s overthrow.
“Morsi is confirming that he is following the same policies of [former president Hosni] Mubarak in repressing his opponents and trying to smear their reputation through false allegations,” said Heva Yassin, a spokesman for the Popular Current headed by Hamdeen Sabahi, who is one of the targets of investigation, according to AP.
Morsi has faced waves of protests since Nov. 22 decrees that placed him and the constitution-writing assembly above judicial review, allowing Islamists to quickly push the document to a referendum, AP reported.
Egypt is looking to secure a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, and although preliminary approval was granted in November, Egypt will wait to seek final approval until sometime this month. Its government hopes to use the extra time to explain economic austerity measures – necessary to receive the loan – to its public.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – John Evans is a writer in Houston.)