Getting Away With It: Egypt's Religious Minorities Need the Rule of Law

It is still unclear how Egyptian legislation under increasingly Islamist influence might treat the Copts and other religious minorities, but it is an increasingly grim outlook.
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In a recent article, George Washington University's Nathan Brown -- a specialist on Arab constitutions who has advised Congress on regional issues -- starkly argues that American advice for constitutional committees in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere will be mostly bad and irrelevant. Brown explains that Arab constitutional committees are likely to allow "few points of entry for foreigners to press their ideas" -- and they will almost certainly look to Europe, rather than the U.S., if they do seek advice elsewhere.

Brown overstates American impotence in much of this piece, particularly since he extends the distressing American experiences with the Iraqi and Afghani constitutions beyond their respective contexts. Those fiascoes notwithstanding, the U.S. can in fact wield influence in the constitutional processes that will inevitably emerge from the Arab Spring.

For example, the U.S. gives Egypt more than $1.3 billion each year in mostly military aid, and it should already be making clear to the transitional Egyptian government that there are redlines for this support -- such as the threat of religious cleansing that was visible in the Oct. 9 massacre of mostly Coptic Christian protestors at Maspero. That drew the pressure of glaring, unwelcome Western media attention on the ruling military junta (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF), including rare front-page coverage in the New York Times, without which the country's new anti-discrimination legislation would have never seen the light of day. Egyptian authorities can and will respond to bold international pressure, and there is little reason to doubt that this influence will wane substantially, especially as far as its relationship with the U.S. is concerned.

Brown's article does correctly allow for one exception in which Western engagement may bear fruit: the rule of law principle. For the Egyptian context, in which the U.S. holds influence, this principle is not incidental. Muslims and Christians in Egypt have both suffered from the inconsistent implementation of justice that has grown out of a culture of rampant corruption, the abuse of extra-constitutional military trials and other breaches of rule of law. However, this principle is also evident in the religious discrimination clearly playing a role in the recent increase of anti-Christian mob violence across the nation, and in the distinct lack of will on the part of Egyptian authorities to prevent or punish this violence.

In other words, all Egyptian citizens suffer from a rule of law deficit, and in this respect the country's non-Muslims suffer most of all. Assuming the country's new anti-discrimination law will be implemented to afford equal protection under the law, the rule of law will be essential to addressing that Egypt's pattern of allowing with impunity religious violence against its minorities.

For example, in al-Marinab, Aswan on Sept. 30, a local Salafi preacher incited a Muslim mob to destroy a partly renovated church and attack the village's Christian residents. Rather than prevent or later prosecute this case of mob rule, the governor of Aswan -- who had issued the church's permit in the first place -- responded by publicly blaming the victims (by claiming that church did not have proper permission to conduct renovations) and then condoning the mob's religious vigilantism, allegedly referring to the rioters with affection as "our boys." Who then is running the Aswan governorate: government officials or vigilante mobs? Clearly it is the latter, at least when the rights of religious minorities are involved.

A much earlier also reflects this long-term pattern: in 2000, a fight between a Muslim and a Christian in al-Kosheh turned into a mass anti-Christian riot that left 20 Copts dead, dozens wounded, and hundreds of Coptic-owned homes and businesses destroyed. After some initial arrests, the police released every last suspect in the riots: not a single rioter was held accountable before the law -- except one Muslim man who had accidentally shot a fellow Muslim in the ensuing chaos. In this case, then, rule of law was completely ignored for Christian victims of the mob violence, while the dignity of the single Muslim victim was respected by bringing his killer to justice.

Egyptians themselves are beginning to publicly recognize the central position that rule of law should hold: at least one new NGO, the Egyptian-American Rule of Law Association, has recently emerged to champion this cause. American and European policymakers should do all they can to encourage like-minded organizations and individuals and help make their voices heard clearly and resoundingly. They should push the Egyptian authorities right now to respect rule of law by implementing and enforcing their own anti-discrimination legislation. And they should leverage all possible influence to encourage their Egyptian counterparts to craft a more just and fair constitution, one that follows internationally agreed-upon conventions of human dignity and liberty -- including religious freedom -- for all of its citizens, not just its religious majority.

It is still unclear how Egyptian legislation under increasingly Islamist influence might treat the Copts and other religious minorities, but it is an increasingly grim outlook. This makes it all the more urgent that the U.S. press its Egyptian allies to enshrine greater individual liberty, equal citizenship and a commitment to rule of law in its constitutional revisions. In the case of Egypt's Coptic Christians and other religious minorities, a move in this direction will bring more than restored dignity and increased safety: it may also protect their long-term survival as an integral part of the nation.

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