Egyptian journalist Yasser Khalil weighs Egyptians’ desire for democratic change

Cairo - Egyptians are tired of the problems that have persisted for decades: the corruption and bribery that paralyse the nation’s law enforcement and legal system; the perpetual poverty that 20 per cent of the population suffers from; the nearly constant 10 per cent rate of unemployment; and a flawed educational system that has resulted in 27 per cent illiteracy.

Change is certainly on most Egyptians’ minds but are they truly ready for the democratic and practical changes that Mohamed ElBaradei, former Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and potential candidate for the 2011 presidential election, is promising?

A 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner, ElBaradei’s popularity exploded a few months ago, especially among the nation’s youth. His main Facebook support group, "ElBaradei for Presidency of Egypt 2011", has more than 240,000 members, seven per cent of the approximately 3.4 million Facebook users in Egypt. He is also supported by the 6th of April Youth Movement, a Facebook activist group which was started in 2008 to support striking industrial workers in a northern Egyptian town. The group is primarily comprised of young activists, bloggers and citizen journalists who rally online and in the streets for various political causes. 
ElBaradei is also respected amongst the older generation, evidenced by the broad support for his National Association for Change organisation, which advocates for a political system based on genuine democracy and social justice. Supporters of this organisation include the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest political opposition group.

These constituencies support ElBaradei’s seven-point political reform plan for a better Egypt. This plan includes, among other reforms, ending the state of emergency in effect since 1981, enabling the judiciary to supervise the polling process, simplifying voter requirements and limiting the presidency to two terms.

Accomplishing these goals will require the modification of various articles in the Egyptian Constitution. And though many Egyptians view certain modifications as a necessary next step, ElBaradei – usually perceived as an open-minded liberal both in the media and by the people – stirred up a heated debate over Article II of the Constitution, which states that Islam is the official state religion and that Islamic law is the principle source of legislation. 

Though he didn’t specifically mentioning changing the article, ElBaradei said that while he respects Egypt’s Muslim-majority, he also has to protect the rights of the Coptic Christian minority – and every Egyptian – regardless of faith, as they are guaranteed the same rights in the Constitution.

As a result, certain Islamic television channels, and the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, published videos and articles against Elbaradei online. Many people commented that they would no longer vote for ElBaradei because he wants to separate religion from the state. And while the Muslim Brotherhood still supports ElBaradei’s candidacy, they disagree with his ideas for democratic change that includes a separation of state and religion.

These heated reactions are creating concern amongst some Egyptians who think that the majority is not ready to embrace such drastic change, which would force the issue of assuring equal rights to religious minorities and would no longer require Islamic principles to be the primary sources of legislation. 

Many Egyptians believe that ElBaradei’s reforms would also include the removal of religion from identity cards, ending the application of Islamic family law to marriage and divorce processes for non-Muslims, the elimination of stumbling blocks discouraging religious minorities from constructing houses of worship and an end to anti-proselytisation laws.

In fact, many also believe that if the country had truly free and fair elections, the Muslim Brotherhood party – which rejects the notion of Christians and women running for the presidency – would be elected, bolstered by the conservative-leaning religious sentiments of the majority. 

ElBaradei’s potential to win the Egyptian presidency is still limited by people’s sensitivity to religion. For example, if the debate surrounding ElBaradei’s religiosity dies down and he becomes an official candidate who goes on to win the 2011 elections, some Egyptians fear that he will be pressured into choosing between implementing his plan of widespread democratic change and risking being labelled an “Americaniser” or an “enemy of Islam”, or compromising with the current social and political elite and not following through on some of his promises, like giving equal rights to minorities.

In order to bring about a future where Egyptians come to know true democratic reform as promised by ElBaradei’s seven-point plan, Egypt’s well-respected religious leaders – both Muslim and Christian – must help him quell the current debate and become more vocal in their support for his campaign for a more equal, tolerant Egypt. 

Egyptians must pool their efforts and advocate for ElBaradei within their own religious communities, helping to cultivate a culture of tolerance so that people accept equal rights for all, regardless of religious identity. Though shifting mindsets is a long process, support from renowned religious figures in the country could help ElBaradei recoup his losses and put him back on the campaign track for the 2011 elections.

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* Yasser Khalil is an Egyptian journalist. This article is part of a series on Islamic law and non-Muslim minorities written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

NOTE:  The article above is also available in Indonesian, French, Urdu, and Arabic.  See the accompanying link for the Common Ground News Service.