Egypt: A Step Back for Minorities in New Draft Constitution?

My definition of “minorities” is the legal terminology mentioned in international law which protects ethnic, religious and cultural-linguistic minorities. Political minorities, however, are another issue to be discussed.

Although the January 25, 2012 Egyptian Revolution began for freedom, social justice, full equality and equal opportunities without discrimination among citizens, Mohamed Morsi’s presidential election victory in June 2012 has hijacked this sentiment, rendering it meaningless.

Many Egyptians wished that the constitutional committee which founded Egypt’s new constitution would draft a civilized constitution that satisfies the desires of all Egyptians, both the minority and the majority. However the committees responsible for drafting Egypt’s new constitution were not the same activists protesting in Tahrir Square for realistic change, reform and democracy. Instead they exploited the momentum which the secular and liberal Egyptian youth created to seize power and are now neglecting the Coptic, Shiite, Baha’i’, Nubian and Tamazight (Berber) ethnic minorities whom constitute more than a quarter of Egypt’s population.

The problem of statistics

Calculating official statistics in Egypt and in other developing nations is a daunting task because they often lack scientific accuracy. For example, the central institution for calculations and survey recently found that in 2012, Egypt’s Copts number slightly more than five million.

However, official Church sources, Coptic activists, Bishop Morqos of the Shoubra Al-Kheima church and Egypt’s daily paper Rose el-Youssef say that Copts are no less than 18 million.

According to an article from Akhbar Masr in March, many Egyptian cabinet members estimated the number of Baha’is by the hundreds while Baha’i leaders say they represent tens of thousands of Egyptians. Subsequently, estimates place Shiites at no more than ten thousand while the official Shiite spokesperson of Horryati magazine, Baha’ Mohammed Anwar, says they comprise nearly 3 million.

Haggag Adoul, the most famous Nubian activist, said that there are more than 3 million Nubians in Egypt. The Tamazight, or indigenous Berber community of North Africa, however, is not officially recognized by Egypt as an ethnic minority, and is approximately 25,000.

The minorities as mentioned in the new constitutional draft

Egypt now faces a setback after the second clause of the draft constitution stipulates that Islam is the religion of Egypt, the Arabic language is its official language, and that sharia, or Islamic law, is the main source of legislation.

Declaring that Islam is the official religion is problematic, as it sets a precedent for discrimination against the Christian minority. Implementing Islamic law as the main source of legislation is also state-sanctioned discrimination against non-Muslims. It is also offends secular Muslims who would like a greater separation of religion and state.

For example the administrative court of justice refused to include the word “Baha’i” as the description for religion in the Egyptian ID. The state does not recognize the Baha’i faith and therefore decided to insert a “hyphen” in place of Baha’i identification.

The second clause of the Egyptian constitution was misused to prevent the Christian mother whose husband converts to Islam to have custody of her infants, as custody is given to the superior in Islam. The court also refused to allow those who converted from Islam to Christianity to have their ID as Christians. In the case known as the “Case of the Reconverts,” 4000 cases in court are kept since this is apostasy in Islam.

We hope that legislation will pass which changes these laws set out in Egypt’s new constitution to make sure the protection and civil liberties of all Egyptians – including minorities. Whether this actually occurs remains to be seen, but the world is watching.

Mamdouh Nakhla
(Mamdouh Nakhla is an Egyptian human rights activist who specializes in minority issues. He is a member of the minorities and indigenous people in the Semitic delegation for human rights in Geneva, a lawyer for cassation court, a member of the international forum of lawyers in Paris, and Chairman of the Al-Kalema Centre for human rights in Cairo)

A version of this article originally appeared on

Photo: Egyptian Copts praying in Tahrir Square during the 2011 protests


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Date: 25/10/2012




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