Previous Articles on Egypt’s Constituent Assembly Members

Egypt is currently undergoing a major political stir concerning the formation of the constitution. The referendum in March 2011 assigned parliament the right to elect a 100 member constituent assembly to draft the constitution, which would be put to a popular referendum after fifteen days. Very little instructions were provided on how this should be done, resulting in the current crisis.

Consistent with their powerful parliament majority, Islamist forces have approved an Islamist-dominated assembly. First they apportioned one-half of the membership to be drawn from parliament, which was distributed roughly according to party percentage. As Islamists represent 70% of this body, they immediately commanded a dominating percentage of the assembly as well.

The remaining half of the assembly was to be drawn from civil society, but the Islamist parliamentary majority submitted the final candidate list only one hour prior to voting, and then pushed through their desired candidates. This list includes several prominent non-Islamist figures, but most of these have since resigned in protest over Islamist dominance of the assembly.

The crisis is ongoing, with reformist Islamists seeking to reach out to the disgruntled liberals, while the Muslim Brotherhood engages in an ongoing war of words with the government and military council over the cabinet – which they want dismissed so as to form one themselves (in coalition, they insist, with all political currents) – as well as the presidency. The next few days in Egypt may be very politically telling.

In the meanwhile, this article purposes also to provide brief background on some of them selected members of the constituent assembly I have interacted with or written about in the past.

Only six Coptic members were elected to the body, but one of them is Rafik Habib. He is noteworthy as being a vice-president in the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. A Protestant, he cares deeply for the issues of Copts, but wraps their best future in an Islamic vision.

Rafik Habib: On Sharia, State, and Christianity – April 14, 2011

A more traditional Islamist is Nadia Mostafa, who is one of only six women in the 100 member assembly. She is a professor at Cairo University and discussed with me the relationship between Islam and civil society, especially how the promotion of civil society is often to the exclusion of the Muslim religion.

Islam and Civil Society – April 22, 2010

The final figure I have profiled was former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Nasr Farid Wassel. In a short interview I highlighted his statement honoring Osama bin Laden, but then spoke with an official member of the Azhar to dispute his interpretation.

Refuting bin Laden’s Martyrdom – May 24, 2011

It is certainly a unique body of Egyptians. Will they be able to draft a constitution acceptable to the Egyptian consensus? While already in question, the outcome is still to be decided.

Arab West Report Middle East Published Articles

Rafik Habib: On Sharia, State, and Christianity

For an introductory essay to this text, please click here.

On August 19, 2010 AWR interviewed Dr. Rafik Habib, an Egyptian Christian scholar who has devoted his research to the realm of Christianity and Islam contemplating on Muslim-Christian relations, Islamic civilization, and the role of the state in the Egyptian society.

Dr. Rafik Habib was born in 1959 in Minya, Upper Egypt, into the family of Samuel Habib, an evangelical pastor who later became the President of the Evangelical Denomination in Egypt (1980-1997). Dr. Habib refers to himself as an ordinary Christian who came to Cairo to attend ‘Ain Shams University after finishing his secondary education in his hometown. He obtained a masters degree in psychology (1985) and later a PhD in the same field (1988). During his studies Dr. Habib researched significant issues in the Christian community, and later published Psychology of Religiosity for Copts in Egypt. He has since published over twenty other titles. Despite this, though he sought work in a university or academic research center such as al-Ahram, he was never accepted. Many suggested that it was due to the fact that he is a Christian. But, Dr. Habib is of a contrary opinion:

I found it to be a matter of social relationships. To have someone support you in this kind of issue is more important, in many cases, than if I am a Christian or a Muslim.

Dr. Rafiq Habib has been influenced by his family, as he himself acknowledges, and his father was a leading evangelical personality in Egypt at that time. Nonetheless, he is well-known for his ideological affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, an entirely Muslim organization.

Dr. Habib has never attempted to join the organization, nor would he be able to, but his adherence to its ideas led him to join the Wasat Party, a political organization based on the moderate ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood. As he points out, religious movements (be they Islamic or Christian) are exclusive to their denomination, but organizations working at the political or social level should be open for anyone.

Yet being a Christian and a scholar, he has sought out dialogue with the political Islamists. Dr. Habib has been interacting with the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Jama’a al-Islamyyia, and other Muslim groups since 1989. His has primarily involved himself with the peaceful groups, but has also received criticism for engaging with violent entities. He is quick to distinguish nuances:

At that time, it is important to notice that this organization (Islamic Jihad) was violent, when they murdered Anwar Sadat. But after that, they continued to be a preaching organization with a militant wing, a very weak one. (…) You could meet a member in al-Jama’a al-Islamyyia, who is not a militant. (…) In my opinion al-Jihad was a revolutionary organization from its basis, but al-Jama’a al-Islamyyia is in its basis a preaching group in its organization.

Nevertheless, Dr. Habib maintains that for a researcher is important to learn about the different groups, even those that are militant. Dialogue, however, is not possible with militant personalities, only with those who are peaceful within a militant organization. According to Dr. Habib, extremists reject dialogue altogether, making them inaccessible.

Who are the extremists? What is extremism for Dr. Habib?

Dr. Habib finds this difficult to answer as the term is drawn from western definition. Nevertheless, he asserts that extremism is not a permanent condition but a temporary phenomenon. In his opinion, most of the Islamic movements are becoming more moderate. But,

(Extremism is a) part of the Islamic project, where some make the most clear-cut points; all issues are white and black, even the values and variables. (…) Similarly some take a clear-cut position towards Christians, thinking the Islamic society is for Muslims only. For these, Christians can be present in an Islamic state, but only within their Christian community subsumed by Islamic society, not as a part of Islamic society.

How do Christians have a place in Islamic society? Dr. Habib offers his perspective based on his doctoral study of the national character of the Egyptian society. He maintains that Egypt is a part of Islamic culture and civilization, which is in fact a continuation of Pharaonic culture and civilization. Religion (first Christianity, later Islam) did not destroy the ancient culture, but rather reshaped it. Therefore, he argues that:

I think that the national character, culture, and values of the Christians in Egypt are similar to that of the Muslims, and I found that Christians themselves belong to the Islamic character and culture of Egypt. Muslims and Christians have the same national character and identity.

Based on the argument that Muslims and Christians in Egypt share the same national identity Dr. Habib believes that:

We can have a chance in the future for Christians and Muslims to discover their shared values and rebuild the Islamic culture together.

Nowadays, their mutual relations are negatively affected by developments of the 1970s. Dr. Habib argues that at the time of Anwar Sadat Egyptian society began to dissolve. Both communities began to develop separate religious identities leading to the enclosure of Christian community within the Church and to the establishment of numerous Islamic movements. These communities preferred their particular religious identity (Muslim or Christian) over the prior Islamic-Egyptian cultural identity. According to Dr. Habib, the separation of the communities happened because the state was unable to represent both Christians and Muslims in the same value system. Instead the state pushed a secular agenda foreign to both religious groups.

In order to restore the previous order – to bridge both communities again – Dr. Habib suggests a controversial idea:

The Egyptian society will continue to be an Islamic society and the Christians must return to their conservative identity and join it in one identity as happened before. If we go back 50 years, the whole society looked conservative and very Islamic, though the Christians were a little cautious of the Islamic identity. But if we go more than 100 years back, we find that Christians were unified with the Islamic society under Islamic Sharia and under the Islamic state and there was no problem.

Dr. Habib identifies the main obstacles to such a return as the secular nature of the state, the pressure from Western countries to secularize further, and the Christian community that wants to protect itself under secularization.

The core idea of Dr. Habib theory is that the revival of Islamic state would bridge the communities again. Originally, the Muslim Brotherhood aimed to restore the Islamic state following the end of Ottoman caliphate and the establishment of an imposed secular nation-state model. Dr. Habib argues that the secular state model did not reflect the religiosity of the society which rebelled against it. The Brotherhood rallied such opposition, but was double crossed:

The Nasserists came to the power with the support of the Muslim Brotherhood. It turned out to be a historical mistake, when they supported Gamal Abdel Nasser. Because after he took power with their support, he said I am not building an Islamic state.

Nasser introduced instead his own nationalistic vision of Arabism that was, to some extent, related to Islamism, in that Arabic identity can shelter both Christian and Muslim identity. The development of Arabism was, however, stopped by the 1967 defeat to Israel. The Six Day War significantly challenged the existing societal and political order in Egypt, initiating deep consequences:

When you’re defeated you return back to your deep, deep identity, and try to protect yourself inside the protection-point: your identity and social consciousness. And, the strong protection-point in our society is the religion. Then both Christians and Muslims returned back to their religions.

Dr. Habib provides an example of the daily routine at the universities in the 1970s:

If you entered a classroom, there was a special place for Christians guarded by members of the “Coptic Family” and for Muslims guarded by the “Religious Group”. But there was no conflict or violence between them; it came spontaneously. The different societies wanted to feel secure, and they turned to religion.

Therefore, Dr. Habib maintains that in order to bridge the communities again, it is necessary to return to the Islamic culture, value system, and civilization as the identity of the society, as both Christian and Muslim values in Egypt have been shaped by the same surroundings. Dr. Habib argues that these conservative religious values are embodied in the Egyptian society and therefore the existing project of the secular nation-state is failing. To succeed, the state must reflect the value system of the society which it is not the case in Egypt:

I think that this model (the secular nation-state) will not work in Egypt or in other Arabic countries, because it depends on the power of law, whereas society depends on the power of religion, which means the power of morals. If you want to organize society by the power of law, the society will not obey it. (…) All society thinks of the state as an enemy, because the state will not accept the societal identity; the state is meaning of law. (…) There is no reason for Egyptian Arab Muslims to obey the secular state, because the reason which is to be found in Western countries is not here. Western societies obey the state instead of the church. They obey the state, because it is the way of progression, and they think that if they obey the church, they will not progress.

Dr. Habib’s argument is based on the significant role religion plays in the societal order. He assumes that:

If the state obeys religion, then the people will obey the state. Because people will always obey the religion in their life, they will not obey anything other than religion, and if you want them to obey the state the state must obey the religion.

Conversely, if the state does not obey religion, the people do not find the justification to obey the laws imposed by the state. In Islam, people are to obey the ruler, even a corrupt one, as long as he applies Islamic Sharia. According to Dr. Habib, the Egyptian state fails to apply Islamic Sharia, even though it is embodied in Article 2 of the constitution.

If the present state applied Article 2 it would not be an issue, because Sharia as a basis can reshape the nation-state to Islamic state in 2 or 3 years if applied.

The proper application of Article 2 would enable the establishment of the Islamic state – an ideal type – restoring the harmony between society and the state. Dr. Habib goes further arguing that the society would be more free and powerful. The church, al-Azhar, and NGO’s would all be independent, as well as the fields of health care and education policy. There would be no interference of the state in civic society. The ideal form of the Islamic state would be a completely decentralized parliamentary system. In sum, it would mean less government in all sectors of society.

When society becomes powerful, it builds its frame of reference and it chooses its ultimate values, and then the state is obliged to behave according to these values.

Nonetheless, Dr. Habib notifies that there are several models of the Islamic state, e.g. the Iranian or Saudi models that are not desirable. He prefers the concept of the civil Islamic state where the authority is political, maintaining only the Islamic value frame of reference. Religious authority would be non-existent as there is no religious authority in Sunni Islam.  The state would be governed by the rules of religion, but no one would have religious authority. Islamic scholars would have the right to say their opinion, but the people would have the right to choose which opinion to follow. Once both scholars and society agree upon something, it would become enforced.

Understandably, the question what the position of religious minorities would be like in the Islamic state arises. Dr. Habib offers two rationales that would secure the position of Christians in the Islamic state scenario. First, the freedom of confession would be guaranteed:

Nowadays Christianity exists inside the church but is limited to the Christian community. Thus, secularism surrounds Christianity and the church and weakens its role in society. Under the Islamic state it can be completely different because the main function of the Islamic state is to protect religion, not to restrict it.

Second, the majority of those significantly influencing the character of the state are moderate Muslims with moderate thoughts representing the underlying idea of the Islamic culture. Therefore, Dr. Habib maintains that it is essential for Christians to interact with the moderate mainstream (implicitly meaning the Muslim Brotherhood):

I call on Christians to interact or just even dialogue with the mainstream, because if you are against the mainstream, you make the extremists more powerful. I have a problem here, because the state and the secular elite are always against the mainstream. By weakening the mainstream and having a powerful nation-state, the extremists will take the state.

Dr. Habib defeats the plea that dialogue between Christians and Islamists is difficult to achieve, utilizing a love-your-enemy argument:

Because of Christian values you must love all of Egyptian society, not only your neighbor or the persons you know. Within Christianity there is the fundamental idea that the Christian is to love his enemy. If we apply Christian values in that way with our traditions, which are very social, we can make bridges with the Muslim community, Islamic movements, and other trends. But, the political issue here is ruining the whole situation, especially when the church became in coalition with the state, as the role of the church should be societal.

Accordingly, the current linkage of the church and the secular state harms the reestablishment of harmony between the two religious communities. Dr. Habib claims that once the church accepted the coalition with the state, it became a part of a secular political agenda which completely contradicts the Islamist movements. Dr. Habib asserts that:

The state knows that if the Christian community agreed upon a project with the Islamic movement the secular state will end. This is because the secular discourse here in Egypt uses the existence of Christians as a reason why the Islamic state cannot be established, and the government uses Christianity to say that they are protecting it and therefore the West must support it.

By maintaining a relationship with the government the church adopts the position of a supporter of the secular nationalistic model of state. As such, the Christian community is now in a unique situation: It is separated from society, preaching and practicing Christian love inside its own community, implicitly or explicitly supporting western interference in its homeland. Finding a way out of this situation, according to Dr. Habib, is very difficult.

Dr. Rafik Habib is a unique Egyptian Christian scholar who has not been afraid to stand out and address sensitive issues in Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt. He has devoted his academic career to enhance the mutual understanding of both groups. Though his findings might be controversial, it should not be forgotten that all has been done in his best belief to contribute to a better and healthier atmosphere between Christians and Muslims in Egypt.


Related Posts:


A Christian Supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood

What are the consequences of loving your enemy?

The thought of loving your enemy with any practicality at all is nearly unfathomable for most people. Though Christians may be among the few to state the effort is even commendable, it is safe to gather that many hold the virtue as proof their faith is more sublime than others, rather than as a lived habit or lifestyle choice. But who can blame them? How does one even begin to consider what might be done otherwise? Perhaps one can curb retaliation, but to actively do good? Anticipated consequences immediately shut down all efforts. These are obvious enough – evil advancing as the victim enables – but there are unanticipated consequences as well, as shall be seen with one man who tried.

In Egypt there is no public, or even private, talk of enemies. Christians are in a minority position, and though they encounter various difficulties as a community, they also know that using a pejorative term like ‘enemy’ would only make matters worse. Yet there is an undertone of sentiment that throws its frustration in various directions – Muslims, Islam as a system, government – in a manner not far from common understandings of ‘enemy’. This is not true of all, of course, and may not even be justified. But it exists.

Many Christians strive to secure their rights by promoting a secular state and open civil society. As such, the political enemy, or at least boogeyman, is the Muslim Brotherhood. In Egyptian politics the Brotherhood is known as a somewhat moderate Islamist movement, forswearing violence in their effort to shape an Islamic society and state. There are other movements less so, though the government has stamped most of them out. Yet Christians and Muslim secularists consistently hold the Brotherhood as the foil against their democratic reform efforts. For Christians the reason is clear, even if the reality is not necessarily so: A Brotherhood triumph will make Christians second class citizens.

Christians are not without cause in fearing the Brotherhood, but like many political movements, it is difficult to sort out the rhetoric from the reality. Muslim Brothers today do not speak out against Christians, and claim they desire an open civil society as well. Is this a temporary ploy to curry favor and secure power, after which their true colors will be seen? This is the fear. Certainly there is valid enough fear to understand why Christians engage the group as if they are the enemy. Again, though, the term is never invoked.

One man, however, refuses this wholesale rejection. Rafik Habib is the son of a now-deceased prominent evangelical Christian leader. Samuel Habib directed CEOSS, the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services. This group enjoys a good reputation in Egypt, both for its work among the evangelical poor, but also for their cross-service to other Christians and the Muslim community.

Rafik, however, directed his efforts toward academia. Specifically, he wished to uncover the core culture of Egypt, made up of different strands from Pharaohnic, Mediterranean, and Arab influences. Additionally, he made purposeful effort to dialogue with the Islamist elements of Egypt, entertaining the question of the place of Christians in an Islamic state.

His findings will be summarized in the post to follow. I had the chance to interview Rafik Habib, and an intern from Arab West Report wrote the summary of our conversation. As a preview, however, suffice it to say that nearly no Christian in Egypt sympathizes with him, nor shares his perspective on interreligious matters of governance. It has been wondered if he is, in fact, a Muslim himself.

In his confession, he is not, he is a Christian. Yet his effort to engage ‘the enemy’ of many of his co-religionists has marginalized him among his own community. When I met him I had the feeling I was speaking with a man alone. Alone with his convictions, to be sure; a source of strength that was also apparent.

What was not apparent was if he was alone in his love. Rafik Habib did not explain himself in this terminology, preferring to stay in the technical language of academia. Therefore, while I might read this motivation into his conduct, it would be unfair to attribute it to him.

If it was not love, however, it was conduct not far removed, unless deeper and more cynical explanations become unearthed. Regardless, two consequences are revealed in his life.

One, he has suffered rejection from his own kind. There are certainly different types of love, one of which focuses on the self-preservation of the group. This love is real, and will protect the group, even sacrificially, when its interests are threatened. The love that reaches out to the other, however, can be seen to jeopardize the group, removing barriers of distinction. The bridge of love, extending to an enemy, can be burned from either direction.

Two, though this will be seen more clearly in the interview to follow, Rafik has been changed through his interactions. Love is often said to be blind; perhaps, but it also has eyes to see what others cannot. This consequence can help justify one’s group in their rejection, but can also weigh heavily on the individual seeking to love. Bearing the burden of a new version of reality can be a troubling task. It can be hard to serve two masters, especially when they are at odds with one other.

Christians, and lovers of God from different confessions, have only one master. Yet that master wishes them to have many objects of their service. The decision to love may result in rejection, but will almost certainly result in the transformation of self. The promise, however, is that it may also result in the transformation of the other. Be it the enemy or the group, the one who loves must be prepared to suffer. It may well be, as Jesus demonstrates for Christians, that the suffering is essential. Egyptian Christians and Islamists alike, as humanity everywhere, stand in need of transformation. May many more, like Rafik Habib, stand accordingly.


Note: This article is based on an interview conducted with Habib before the revolution. I would very much like to follow up with him upon our return to Egypt, to see how he interprets the current situation.