Thousands of protestors gathered in Cairo on Friday calling for the immediate implementation of Sharia law in what has become a widening dispute over Islam's role in Egypt's constitution. Despite appeals by liberals and Christians for a secular constitution enshrining democratic principles, a proposed draft of the document more closely resembles a Saudi-style theocracy that crushes the freedoms of non-Muslims.
The demonstration, dubbed by some as 'Sharia Friday,' was attended by an estimated 10,000 Islamist protestors, most of whom represented Salafi groups that adhere to the radical Wahhabi doctrine of Islam found in Saudi Arabia. "The Quran is above the constitution," read a placard strung across a street in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Agence France-Presse reported. "Bread, freedom, Sharia," read another sign, with the word Sharia replacing the call for "social reform," a slogan of Egypt's uprising in early 2011 that deposed from power.
Central to the debate is Article 2 of a proposed constitution released last month which states that the "principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source for legislation." While liberals and Christians have pushed for a secular constitution accepting only vague references to religion, Salafis have demanded that Article 2 be altered to say that the "rulings," rather than "principles," of Sharia will govern the country. The change of wording would require Egyptian law to abide by a strict interpretation of Sharia determined by appointed clerics.
"We reject [the word] 'principle': this is an Islamist State despite [what] secularists [want]," protestors reportedly chanted on Friday. "Sharia is our constitution.... The people demand the application of God's law," they continued.
"Those who reject the Shari'a are infidels, rejecting the Shari'a is apostasy," Adel Afifi, the founder and president of Al-Asala political party, repeated several times. Prior to the protest, Afifi wrote on Facebook that accepting a secular constitution is "a clear sin" and those who do will be "casting themselves into hell," Al Arabiya reported.
Egypt's ruling Muslim Brotherhood attempted to accommodate Salafi demands by proposing that an article be added to the constitution that defines the meaning of "principles" of Sharia as "juristic rules" agreed upon by scholars and the "accepted sources" of the Quran's interpretation. "Such wording could make it easier for hard-liners to challenge laws they feel don't adhere to Shariah and empower legislators to pass laws that could impose heavy-handed limits on freedoms of expression, worship, faith and other civil liberties," The Associated Press reported.
Egypt's 100-member Constituent Assembly, which is tasked with writing the document, is dominated by Islamists from the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafis' leading Al-Nour Party. While both parties agree that Sharia is central to the constitution, they disagree on its method of implementation.
"[The Brotherhood and Salafis] share the long-term objective of establishing an Islamic state, but they disagree on the timeframe and tactics for achieving that goal," Foreign Policy reports. "The Brotherhood has taken a more gradualist approach and has compromised on strategic concessions to liberals and minorities. Salafis, meanwhile, have accused the Brotherhood of backstabbing and dragging their feet on the application of Sharia."
Many Egyptians point to neighboring Saudi Arabia when expressing their fears over the implementation of Islamic penal codes, where crimes like drug trafficking, rape, adultery, and robbery are punished with execution by the sword, the cutting off of limbs, or death by stoning. Moreover, a Sharia-centered constitution would abolish the religious freedoms of minorities, including Christians, rights activists say.
While secular activists-who were key participants in Egypt's uprising that toppled Mubarak-had hoped the constitution would set the foundation of a liberal, democratic state, Islamists have instead emerged as the strongest political force, sweeping parliamentary elections and winning the presidency in June. The Constituent Assembly may agree on a draft constitution by mid-November, which would then be put to a public referendum within 30 days.
"Salafis want to apply the laws of early Islam from 1400 years ago in the 21st century," Coptic activist Wagih Yacoub told ICC. "They believe in cutting the hands off people who steal and stoning adulteress women. They are Wahhabis. Egypt [would] become like Afghanistan under the Taliban. Salafis are one of the largest threats to Christians in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is also very dangerous, but the difference is that Salafis don't negotiate. They are straightforward. They want to kill."For interviews, contact Aidan Clay, Regional Manager for the Middle East: firstname.lastname@example.org