The Ottomans in Egypt let power slip more than 200 years ago, when Albanian adventurer Muhammad Ali became the de facto independent ‘viceroy’. But their legacy lives on in a version of the Ottoman millet system, which divides the population into religious communities, each with control over personal status matters such as marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance. For administrative convenience and in deference to the Muslim concept that ‘revealed’ religions are the only ones that count, every Egyptian is registered as either Muslim, Christian or Jewish. ‘Freedom of religion’ in the Egyptian context basically means the freedom to worship in the manner of one’s ancestors.
The system has been creaking at the seams for decades, and globalization, migration and the communications revolution have added to the strain. Some Muslims have tried to turn Christian, Christian women have dismayed their birth community by converting to Islam and previously unfamiliar beliefs and practices have appeared — Baha’ism, atheism and yoga derived from Hinduism, for example. Thousands of people, still a tiny minority of Egypt’s 80 million people, live in legal limbo between the sectarian structures imposed by the state and the messy reality of the 21st century. The iniquities of the system have also contributed to sometimes violent disputes — churches attacked and set ablaze or street brawls between young Muslims and Christians.
A revolution, especially a revolution in which equal citizenship and a ‘civic state’ were prominent themes, might seem a good moment to jettison the Ottoman legacy and launch Egypt into a new era of individual freedoms. Revolutions often go hand-in-hand with changes in the status of the established religious institutions; witness the drastic reduction of church power after the French and Russian revolutions. The old regime of former President Hosni Mubarak never even tried to bite the bullet. At the most, it sometimes made concessions to foreign criticism and activism by Egyptians, allowing Baha’is, for example, to receive identity cards that do not specify the holder’s religion.
Now change is in the air in Egypt, with a lively debate over what a ‘civic state’ might mean in practice and how it should be enshrined in legislation. Even the Muslim Brotherhood has endorsed the concept, though its version seems to be heavily qualified by vague references to Islam as the state religion and a ‘reference point’ for lawmakers. Among the wider population a ‘civic state’ has broad appeal in theory and Muslim-Christian harmony is cherished as an ideal.
In a significant first step, the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has dusted off old proposals for a standard law regulating the construction and maintenance of mosques and churches, to replace the system whereby Muslims could build mosques almost at will while Christians who wanted to build, repair or expand churches had to plead for permits from provincial governors of unpredictable inclinations. But the proposals are hardly revolutionary, and in the end the power to grant permits will remain in the hands of government officials.
On the broader question of conversions and separation of state and religion, liberal opinion is far from achieving the critical mass likely to lead to a breakthrough. Still, a recent opinion poll did show some encouraging signs for inter-faith relations in general; 67 percent of Egyptians (more than in any Arab country other than Lebanon) said they would not object if someone of a different faith moved in next door, and 78 percent said religious leaders should not have authority to dictate legislation.
But the liberals are treading warily, conscious that accusations of hostility to Islam might undermine their political chances, and the military council running Egypt since February has no track record of innovative or progressive thinking. Without bold leadership, the future of state-religion relations in Egypt will emerge through a process of negotiation in which some of the parties cling to inherited privileges — not just Muslims on behalf of Islam but also Christian churches on behalf of their role as arbiters between Christians and Christians. The outcome will undoubtedly be a compromise that retains some elements of the old system, not a fresh start based on universal principles of human rights. As in many other spheres of life, the Egyptian revolution may turn out to be something rather less than ‘revolutionary’.
Jonathan Wright is managing editor of Arab Media and Society