Saturday, December 29, 2007

An Eventful Year in Egypt: Religion Vs. Citizenship!

In wrapping up the year's events and its significant developments, Al-Ahram Weekly, the English version of Egypt's semi-official newspaper, published an extensive article authored by several writers and under various titles. The main article carries the title "All's not well on the domestic front." One of the article's sections, with the heading "Much to be modest about," was written by one of Al-Ahram's most-respected editors, Mr. Gamal Nkrumah, who addresses the pressing issues of citizenship and religious freedom.

He begins by stating: MUDDLED expectations, more openness on religious freedoms and the correlation between religion and civil rights were defining features of 2007.

Perhaps one of the most determining characteristics of 2007 is not so much the manner in which religion generally has had an ever-increasing impact on public life. Rather, it is that the entire question of religious affiliation and the precise nature of its correlation to citizenship and civil rights have become the subject of a pronouncedly open public debate. The rough edges of the politico-religious debate have not been sanded off. What has changed is the nature of the debate and the fashion in which the media tackled the prickly question of religious rights.

Further down in his article, he addresses the crisis of identification documents for Egyptian Baha'is by writing the following:

How did other religious minorities fare in 2007? The Bahaai community in Egypt is among the most disgruntled. The Bahaai community is generally among the most prosperous and law-abiding in many countries around the world and not only in the West. In Egypt, however, they have had a rotten luck. That is a good cause for worry. Amid confusion and half-truths, the controversy surrounding the nature of the Bahaais of Egypt continues unabated.

As far as the Christian communities of Egypt are concerned, the most pressing issue is full citizenship and civil rights. The same goes for the Bahaai community in Egypt today. "The crux of the matter is our struggle for official recognition as Egyptians and for full citizenship rights," Labib Iskandar, a leading Egyptian Bahaai, and a professor of engineering at Cairo University told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We move about without personal identification cards. That is a criminal offence in Egypt. We could be stopped by police at any moment, anywhere and asked for our ID," he explained. The removal of religious affiliation slot on computerised ID cards has become not only a question of priority for the Bahaai community, but has also been advocated by non-other an influential organisation than the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR).

"Inability to produce an ID card entails a five-year prison sentence. Still, we have faith in the legal system," Basma Moussa, a dentist and an assistant lecturer at Cairo University, yet another outspoken Egyptian Bahaai concurred. Moussa, a vociferous spokeswoman on the plight of Egypt's Bahaais, told the Weekly that the conditions of Bahaais in Egypt has become untenable. "I am a university professor but cannot even withdraw money from my bank account because I do not have an ID card. I cannot even buy or register a car," she complained. "Worse, there are many Bahaai youngsters who cannot even enroll at schools or universities because they do not have birth certificates or ID cards. This causes serious psychological traumas. It is most distressing for the parents and disheartening for the youth. The right to education is a particularly important human right," she explained. "All Bahaai children born in 2004 and afterwards cannot have birth certificates. Shall we lie about our religion in order to secure false birth certificates," she demanded in desperation.

Ironically, in 1924, Egypt became the first predominantly Muslim state to legally recognise the Bahaai faith. However, this initial tolerance was repealed in the 1960s. Currently, Bahaai institutions and public practice of the Bahaai faith is prohibited by Law 263.

In an ideal world, they should. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former secretary-general of the United Nations and currently head of the National Council for Human Rights assured the Weekly that his organisation, an advisory body, had recommended to the government that the slot pertaining to religion on the ID cards be discarded. Conceivably in the not so distant future, this demand by Bahaais and others will be realised.

And, 2007 has been a year in which their specific grievances have come to the fore. "That is the only positive aspect of 2007. At least now we are discussing our predicament in public forums and that makes 2007 relatively better than 2008," Moussa concluded.

As Copts, too, contemplate a prouder future, positions differ on how precarious the situation is. Some Copts want to engage more prominently in peaceful politics, to partake of the democratisation process. But it is hard to determine precisely what degree of freedom the country's assorted religious minorities have attained in 2007.


  1. Al-Ahram Weekly is correct in its attempt to separate religion from citizenship, and issue which has become so muddied in Egypt over the past few years. The sharp focus of the distinction made in this article should help evolve clearer thinking about the issue of citizenship rights of recognized and unrecognized religious minorities in Egypt and specially the Baha'is in Egypt.

    Although nothing happened in terms of settling the court cases in 2007, perhaps we are on the brink of a breakthrough! If this article is representative of journalistic thinking in Egypt, then perhaps there is hope!

  2. You are quite correct. We are indeed "on the brink of a breakthrough!"


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