Egyptians clash on eve of referendum on constitution reflecting Sharia law


On the eve of Egypt’s constitutional referendum, clashes erupted outside the Qaed Ibrahim mosque in the Egyptian port of Alexandria after a preacher called for a Yes vote, prompting secular opponents to protest. Cars were smashed and several people injured.

The constitution, drafted by an assembly dominated by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-orthodox Salafi allies, and scheduled to be voted upon today and next Saturday, has deeply divided the country. Aggressive fundamentalists are pitted against disparate and disputatious secularists.

The fundamentalist camp consists of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s oldest populist political movement, ultra-orthodox Salafi organisations, the once-radical Gamaa al-Islamiya, and conservative reli- gious institutions.

This camp enjoys the firm backing of millions of rural and urban poor who genuinely believe “Islam is the solution” to Egypt’s ills. However, it enjoys less enthusiastic support from educated people who are weary of the upheaval and uncertainty that has followed the 2011 fall of president Hosi Mubarak.


The Brotherhood and more conservative elements are at odds over the speed and extent of “Islamisation” while an increasing number of adherents are deserting because of President Mohamed Morsi’s power grab and the imposition of a constitution without consensus.

The opposition is made up of a wide range of emerging secular, liberal, leftist, revolutionary, centrist and moderate fundamentalist parties, movements and factions, most established over the past 22 months. Ironically they are aligned with faloul or remnants of the Mubarak regime, ousted by secular revolutionaries who are embarrassed by their embrace.

Analysts argue that the opposition needs time to organise in order to challenge the well-established Brotherhood and well-financed Salafis.

Vote No versus boycott

In the run-up to the referendum, opposition leaders, including those in the largest coalition, the National Salvation Front, headed by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, could not agree until the last moment whether to vote No or boycott it.

They eventually decided to follow the lead of the street protesters, already adopted by Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a defected Muslim Brother who heads the Strong Egypt Party, and by progressive clerics associated with al-Azhar, Egypt’s premier Sunni religious institution.

The fundamentalist camp has a religious orientation and outlook, which opponents, such as leftist activist Mamdouh Habashi, a German-trained civil engineer, regard as “medieval”. The constitution, drafted by fundamentalists and reflecting their mindset, leaves key issues vague and subject to interpretation.

It reflects Islamic canon law, Sharia, and traditional norms of the society. The text says principles of Sharia are the chief source of legislation and allows for rulings by clerics associated with al-Azhar. Freedoms are respected as long as they do not contradict Sharia.

Religious discrimination

While Christianity and Judaism are recognised faiths, Baha’ism, an offshoot of Islam, and other creeds are not. Shias and mystic Sufis could face discrimination. Christians and Jews are subject to their own religious laws but since Sharia reigns supreme, they could be treated as “subjects rather than equal citizens”, said Mr Habashi.

The rights of women and children are accorded respect but men are considered protectors of women, a minimum age for marriage is not set, and child labour is not regulated. The state is to be responsible for protecting the values and morals of the family. Labour unions are restricted and hedged in by conditions.

In Mr Habashi’s view, polarisation is “very healthy”. The Islamists are on one side and the rest on the other. The cause of “secularisation is being debated not only by the elite as before but also by the masses. This suddenly makes me optimistic,” he said.

“The battle for secularisation has just started; it could take decades.”