In Translation: Amr Hamzawy on the civil state

In this week's translation from the Arabic press — as always courtesy of translation service Industry Arabic — we turn again to Egypt. Amr Hamzawy is a political researcher who worked in Washington for several years for the Carnegie Endowment for International Affairs, a think tank, and become over the past decade a prominent commentator on political reform in Egypt and the Arab world. After the January uprising, Hamzawy returned to Egypt, began teaching at Cairo University and quickly became a popular guest on television shows and a rising political star of the liberal movement. He is currently a candidate for the Masr al-Horreya Party, which he co-founded, in a central Cairo district. Hamzawy's relative youth (he is in his late 30s, I believe), his telegenic style and progressive views have made him popular among young Egyptians close to the liberal side of the revolutionary movements. His public declaration of love to the actress Basma, several weeks ago, after the couple was carjacked late one evening outside of Cairo, added to his celebrity status. Although some dismiss him as too inexperienced in politics to be taken seriously, in some ways Hamzawy's outsider status (compared to the old opposition) make him an interesting example of the new space being carved out for progressive liberal politics in Egypt, even if that space is small. One supposes the parliamentary elections will tell.

In his regular column for al-Shorouk this week, Hamzawy reacts to the recent events at Maspero and argues that not only the return to civilian rule must be quick, but that a civil state is the only hope against sectarianism.

On the Necessity of a Civil State

By Amr Hamzawy, al-Shorouk, 18 October 2011

To tell you the truth, today, and in the days following the events of Maspiro, I have become more convinced that the establishment of a civil state – by which authority is transferred from the military establishment to elected civil bodies, the relationship between religion and politics is arranged, and equal rights are guaranteed for all citizens – is the only way Egypt’s situation can be fixed. The coming parliamentary elections are an important stage along this path: they will either bring us and the civil state – defined as neither military nor religious – closer, or will spread us apart.

The longer the transition period has lasted during which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) runs Egypt’s unstable affairs, the more SCAF has become mired in clashes with political and social powers and transformed from an authority standing at everyone’s side to a party in clashes and conflicts over politics and public affairs. The longer the period has lasted since the SCAF has undertaken the job of the standing security forces in protecting and securing public facilities, and at times controlling the movement of protestors and strikers, the more the military has become mired in violent confrontations, which both it and society could do without.

If the SCAF wished to push Egypt towards a democratic transformation, to reconstruct civil authority, and to have the military return to its inherent function of protecting national security and state sovereignty, then it would have determined a timetable that does not go past next midyear for completing the transfer of power after parliamentary elections, drafting a constitution, and for electing a president. I repeat for us all so that we realize: the military is no longer an authority between different parties, but rather has transformed into a party involved in political clashes and confrontations. Some national entities quarrel with the military (though the issue of military tribunals for civilians recently witnessed a positive development after the SCAF chairman [Field Marshal Tantawi] barred the trial of civilians militarily), demand an investigation into its actions (a civil and independent investigation into the events of Maspiro), and call upon it to change its position (the election law and the absent timetable). A safe and quick exit from this dangerous style of running national affairs is an imperative, not only for the protection of Egypt and securing a democratic transformation, but also for the military and state institutions.

A civil state is unique in its capacity to arrange the relationship between religion and politics, in that it prevents frightening transgressions from occurring – the likes of which we have increasingly come to suffer. Religious extremism from some radical Islamist groups and over-zealous sheikhs denies equal citizenship rights for non-Muslims and ostracizes dissenters by excommunication. In contrast, there is a sectarian discourse propagated by some priests who fail to distinguish between: 1) the legal right of Christian Egyptians to defend their full citizenship, the role of both their religious belief and freedom, the demand for the enforcement of the law against people involved in acts of violence directed at them, and the public investigation into the recent events of Maspiro, and between 2) inciting sectarian sentiment and driving the Christians’ momentum inside the Church rather than pushing for their presence outside of it in the public-civil sphere. This space is open to us all, regardless of our religious affiliation; it is also capable of facilitating solidarity and consensus on equal citizenship rights.

Only a civil state can legally prohibit the exploitation of religion and its use in driving away people of another religious affiliation or opinion, ban sectarian slogans, and prevent, by way of legislative and executive mechanisms (the parliament and the government, respectively), the monopolization of speaking in the name of religion by the few. A civil state is capable of confronting extremism and protecting the public sphere as a place of equality among all of us by virtue of its socio-political and cultural composition. Truly, we want to build a civil state in order to change direction towards democracy and the rule of law. A civil state is also what guarantees official religious institutions the practice of their true role – the supervision of adherence to divine laws – and what separates divine laws from any unacceptable sectarian or political exploitation.