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Christians support new constitution

17 January 2014


Inked: the Coptic Pope Tawadros II voting in the referendum on Tuesday

Inked: the Coptic Pope Tawadros II voting in the referendum on Tuesday

A NEW draft constitution for Egypt, which is expected to be approved after a referendum this week, will mark the end of political Islam in the country; it should offer a better life for Christians there, the Revd Dr Andrea Zaki, General Director of the Cairo-based Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services (CEOSS), said. The organisation is a partner of Christian Aid.

Speaking on Monday during a visit to London, Dr Zaki said that he was "absolutely happy with the new constitution when I compare it with the previous one". The earlier one had been drawn up during the rule of President Mohammed Morsi, who had been backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The most important change", Dr Zaki said, "is that it promotes religious tolerance; it gives authority to the High Constitutional Court, rather than religious leaders, to explain and interpret the law." Under the previous arrangement, the interpretation of the law reflected the attitudes of individual Muslim figures rather than the view of an independent institution.

Opponents of the new constitution say that it leaves the military with too much power, placing the army's budget beyond public scrutiny, leaving the defence minister to be appointed by generals, and civilians still liable to trial in military courts. While Dr Zaki admits that, in some respects, "the constitution could be better; overall it is very good, and will lead to a new era."

Speaking about the military, he emphasised that without the army's involvement in protecting demonstrators, the 2011 revolution would not have been successful. In the current transition period, Dr Zaki believes that it is natural for the military to continue to play an important part. But this will be for a limited period only.

Despite the flaws in the new document, in Dr Zaki's view "it has restored our state, our freedom, our identity. The atmosphere is quite different from the past, when we were going through a process of Islamisation by the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, we have freedom and pluralism."

Christians have suffered numerous attacks, on people and property, but "today we are secure. Christians earned their position by sacrifice and blood - citizenship was achieved by struggle. Christians and moderate Muslims strongly support the new constitution."

At the same time, the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood means that Egypt is witnessing "the beginning of the end of political Islam". Dr Zaki believes, however, that the Brotherhood has been successful in convincing the media in the West that it is the aggrieved party.

"The Brotherhood wants to give the impression that Egypt is an unstable country. This is not true. We are very disappointed in the Western media."

When asked whether he was concerned that the mass arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters would result in greater polarisation, Dr Zaki replied that, again, flawed perceptions were distorting the truth, and the Brotherhood had only five per cent of public support. "If the figures were 40 per cent and 60 per cent, then there would be polarisation."

In the longer term, Dr Zaki continued, the aim should be to achieve in Egypt "a new spirit of justice for everybody" - including Islamists. He said that he expected many members of the Muslim Brotherhood to be put on trial, but: "There should be no false allegations. I want truth and justice for everyone, which is the spirit of the new constitution."

The Muslim Brotherhood has called on Egyptians to boycott the referendum. In contrast, the military are hoping that a strong "Yes" vote will indicate approval of the steps it has taken to try to restore stability.

Assuming that the new document is accepted, parliamentary and presidential elections will be held later this year. The army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will be under strong popular pressure to stand for the presidency.

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