Disempowering Egyptian citizens

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By Khaled Diab

Despite its democratic aspirations, Egypt’s draft constitution excludes millions of Egyptians from enjoying full citizenship.

Monday 29 October 2012

Congratulations to all conservative, middle-aged male Muslims in Egypt. According to the draft constitution, you qualify as the model Egyptian “citizen”, and the state will be there for you all the way to uphold your rights and defend your freedoms.

However, if you happen to be a woman, a Christian, a follower of a non-Abrahamic faith or an atheist, or simply young, then Egypt’s contradictory constitution – which attempts but fails to strike a balance between secular liberal and conservative religious forces – leaves you vulnerable to the whims and wiles of the powers that be.

The document reflects the raging battle for the soul of Egypt between conservative Islamic and liberal revolutionary forces.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the constitution’s attitude to a full half of the population – women. Article 68 (one of the most hotly debated) begins promisingly by informing us that “the state will do everything to promote equality between women and men”, before delivering the sting in its tail, “without abandoning the judgments of Islamic law”.

The state will also patronisingly help women to “strike a balance between their family duties and their work in society”. So, the constitution is basically telling Egyptian women they are “equal” to men, as long as they obey their husbands or fathers and accept their secondary religious status.

In other respects, the new constitution contains numerous articles that, at first sight, are music to the ears of advocates of democracy and individual freedom. Article 1 tells us that Egypt is governed by a “democratic regime” which, according to article 6, is founded on “consultation, equal citizenship … pluralism [and] respect for human rights”. Other articles guarantee equality for all – regardless of gender, race or faith – and recognise personal freedom as a “natural right” and the right of everyone to a sense of “human dignity”.

Freedom of thought and expression is also safeguarded, and journalists, who have faced decades of draconian restrictions, should, in theory at least, rejoice at the constitution’s protection of their right to pursue their profession freely and to set up media outlets, with the only stipulation being that they notify the authorities.

Unfortunately, however, a lot of what the constitution giveth, it promptly taketh away.

Though the constitution guarantees freedom of belief, albeit only for Abrahamic religions, article 2 describes Islam as the “state’s religion” and vaguely refers to the “principles of shari’a” as the primary source of legislation. This is a ticking time bomb for Christians, whose current marginalisation could become open persecution if this stipulation is exploited to the full by radical Islamists.

Fortunately, the demand by some Islamists that Islamic law should be the sole source of legislation did not make it into the constitution, though the current statement that it is the “primary” source leaves the door ajar both to the modern reinterpretation of Islamic jurisprudence and to the continued reliance on other, secular sources of legislation.

Nevertheless, no matter how liberally shari’a is interpreted, there is an essential tension between Islamic and modern, liberal secular law – at least in the mainstream view of it. This is eloquently expressed in other parts of the constitution. For instance, article 38 prohibits attacks on and affronts to “the prophets” – essentially an anti-blasphemy measure.

While for many pious Egyptians this will appear to be an even-handed way of protecting the sanctity of not just Islam but every religion, it conflicts with the principles of free expression the constitution claims to uphold. For instance, if I, as an agnostic atheist, express my heartfelt conviction that the Qur’an was authored by Muhammad or another human hand, and that the devil, who does not exist, had no hand in the “satanic verses“, will the state defend my freedom of expression or prosecute me for insulting the prophet?

Even among the religious, there is a wide spectrum relating to what is regarded as “insulting” to people’s essential beliefs. In fact, as I’ve pointed out before, the very presence of Judaism, Christianity and Islam can be regarded as a tripartite insult, since each exists because it believes the others contain falsehoods.

This was dramatically demonstrated by the Egyptian Islamist preacher Abu Islam Ahmed Abdullah who, taking a scorched leaf out Pastor Terry Jones’s book, recently set fire to a Bible.

Defending himself against legal charges that his action was insulting to Egyptian Christians, he claimed – rather offensively – that “There is no such thing as the Bible or the Torah, there is only the Qur’an.” This sounds remarkably similar to Pastor Jones – who is apparently running for president of the United States – attitudes to the Qur’an.

In a free country, and in a state that does not wish to turn wackos into martyrs, both Abu Islam and Terry Jones should be left to express their burning hatred, as long as they do not actually hurt or call for the hurting of others.

Even more troubling are the parts of the constitution that transform the state into a sort of Big (Muslim) Brother. Article 10 empowers the government to “safeguard and protect morality and public decency” and to “maintain a refined level of upbringing, religious and nationalist values and scientific facts”, while article 69 tasks the authorities with overseeing, among other things, “the spiritual, moral and cultural development” of young people.

This is not only a paternalistic insult to the generation that taught Egyptians the value of their dignity and freedom, it also raises the thorny question of whose morality. And what should happen to those youth who do not wish to live by the conservative Islamic morality that the authors almost certainly intended?

And the powers of this religious nanny state do not end there. Describing the family as the “cornerstone of society”, article 9 grants the state the power to preserve the “authentic nature of the Egyptian family … protecting its traditions and moral values”.

My personal experience of Egyptian families is that they possess thousands of different “traditions and moral values” – so which will the state enforce and does it have the right or power to impose its own vision?

And what will the state do to families that refuse to abide by its vision? “Re-educate” them? Take their children into its care? This is a truly scary prospect. For instance, my wife and I are raising our child without religion and have decided to let him choose whichever system of beliefs suits him once he is old enough.

If we move back to Egypt, will the state preserve our “natural right” to personal freedom and our constitutional right to human dignity or will it try to force us to raise our child as a “decent Muslim”?

The inherent contradictions in Egypt’s draft constitution, if it ever enters into force, will leave it wide open to individual interpretation and so Egypt’s future as a progressive, enlightened and tolerant state rests in the ability of liberal, secular, pluralistic forces to seize the upper hand from the Islamists.

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 23 October 2012.

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Smoking, from sticks to carrots

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By Ray O’Reilly

Belgian MPs raised eyebrows with their recent banning of facial coverings like the burqa. Now, with a twist, factions have set their sights on smokers and work.

6 May 2010

Smoking is a major health risk and considered antisocial – by non-smokers at least. Punitive measures are already in place to discourage smoking, from frightening messages on the packets, to outright bans in public buildings, restaurants and all the usual places.

Belgian politician Roger Heyvaert (Open VLD) wants to go a step further by compensating non-smokers for the time smokers are thought to waste fagging outside. If I understand right, his proposal late last year was to give non-smokers two extra holidays as compensation. It’s a case of, “the sticks haven’t work, let’s try carrots and jealousy”.

It sounds like a joke, but in heindsight with the new facial covering decision, you almost have to take these things seriously. The recent law banning facial coverings, such as the burqa, niqab and, well, balaclavas, in public places proves that the Belgian parliament has the bite to back up its bark in these unusual cases. And that’s its not afraid of the global outrage (or indeed envy) it may trigger.

The smoking and health statistics are a potentially winning hand in this high-stakes law-making. Despite all the measures in recent years, the total number of daily smokers over 15 year’s old in Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Balgium where the idea has been raised, has grown from 29% in 2002 to 32% in 2009, according to figures quoted in a recent sitting of the Commission for Wellbeing, Public Health, Family and Poverty. More men, especially in the lower social classes, have taken up smoking than women whose ranks are more evenly spread across classes.

If more Flemish are taking up the habit than quitting, what is the government doing wrong? Is it the government’s fault? The Commission goes on to compare the situation with what is happening in Iceland, and the impacts of modern-day stress and smoking habits – arguably a reason for more people smoking.

According to the spokesperson of the foundation against cancer, the impact of the economic crisis on increasing smoking behaviour is not what you would expect. The spokesperson is quoted as saying, “You could predict that people will smoke more because they have more stress. But in Iceland, the country which [was hit] heaviest by the [economic] crisis, it hasn’t happened. […] We suspect that the crisis has no influence on starting up smoking, but makes stopping more difficult.”

Smoke-free lives?

As a non-smoker, I find it hard to fault any initiative to discourage it. Going out to a bar or restaurant in Belgium used to be a curing experience. The ambient smoke would stick to your skin, hair and clothes. With Belgium’s smoking ban now in place in restaurants and pubs serving food, I can even take my kids to a restaurant without feeling like a bad parent.

And I’d be very surprised if anyone misses the smoking section on an airplane. I’m no physicist, but the notion of being able to contain smoke to the last seven rows in an airplane – or a corner of a restaurant in the bad old days – is laughable. Air conditioning can only do so much.

I’ve never worked in an office where smoking was permitted, but every workplace I’ve ever been in has a group of smokers who file out at regular intervals for their hit. When you’re on the 4th, 10th, or 20th floor, that’s quite a hike to the front of the building, where they congregate, hail or shine, for a stolen 15 minutes. Emphasis, perhaps, on stolen, because someone – the government, the employer – is paying for that ‘break’.

“But we’re discussing work,” the smokers routinely argue when the subject is broached. Or, my favourite, they carry a set of papers around, giving the impression that a fag break is really a work break, getting some (smoky) air to help the thinking processes.

The other argument I like is, “I need the cigarette – work is too stressful, bad economic times, etc.”  In other words, it’s not my fault I smoke, it’s the economy or the employer’s for putting me under so much pressure. “I deserve this smoke break!” [Sorry, but it seems the Icelanders have scuttled that last excuse!]

Rationalising smoking is a behaviour study atits finest.

Compensating behaviour

So, the idea put forward by Mr Heyvaert would be to compensate those workers who do not smoke. Great for non-smokers, but of course it raises a few sticky issues; none stickier than the ‘freedom and rights’ argument. Compensating non-smokers is really punishing smokers by stealth, one could argue. Indeed, it could be a back-handed rationale of the law-makers to try to arrest the worrying smoking trends in the land.

It could be a last-ditch effort, where social and health reasoning is apparently failing… to hit smokers where it hurts. I can’t predict which side business will come out on if this proposal grows legs. I guess it might also depend on who has to pay for the extra holidays. Business would probably rather stop the smokers taking fag breaks than compensate the non-smokers, but then we’re back to square one.

And there is the added problem of proving they have genuinely quit – urine tests, anyone? Our American friends are known to issue drug tests on employees, but I’m not aware of its widespread application here. That would be a can of worms to introduce, given much of Europe’s social-liberal leanings.

Let’s say the proposal does stand up and business is prepared to implement it. I can already hear the outrage among the smoking crowd. They’ll point their cigaretted fingers and accuse non-smokers of a cabal, they’ll rage against the machine, they’ll wave their blank sheets of paper around in disgust, then take another drag and all will be forgotten.

Published with the author’s permission.  © Ray O’Reilly. All rights reserved.

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