By James Martone
Catholic News Service
CAIRO (CNS) — Moneer Fawzy recalls that he has spent much of his life exposed to diatribes aimed at him and Egypt’s Christians who make up about 10 percent of the nation’s mostly Sunni Muslim populace of more than 85 million.
Anti-Christian speech is often blasted on mosque speakers during Muslim prayer sermons, said Fawzy, 47, a Cairo house painter. He said he voted in favor of Egypt’s new constitution during a Jan. 14-15 referendum because it promised equality for minorities and "laws banning hate speech."
"It is going to prevent inciting hatred, and will bring equality and new freedoms," said Fawzy, a member of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community.
The new constitution, approved by 98 percent of voters, according to the Egyptian government, is a heavily amended version of the one adopted in 2012 under the brief tenure of President Mohammed Morsi, who won Egypt’s first-ever democratic elections two years ago on a largely Islamist ticket with backing from the country’s Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Morsi was overthrown and jailed by Egypt’s military in July after mass demonstrations against him.
The new constitution lacks the Islamist-inspired provisions of the earlier one, bans the formation of political parties based on religion and makes discrimination and inciting hatred a crime punishable by law. It also strengthens civilian controls of the country’s military.
It retains an article from the previous constitution, which states that the principles of Islamic Sharia law "are the main source" of the country’s legislation, but it adds that all citizens "are equal before the law" and offers more civil liberties to women and to minority groups, including to the country’s Christians who have long complained of discrimination.
The "emphasis on citizenship, and on all citizens having equal rights, is positive for everyone in Egypt, not just Christians," said Father Kamil William, a Coptic Catholic priest.
Father William, like most of the others, said he voted for the new constitution because it "increased" civil freedoms, banned religious political parties and would restore some security to Egypt which has witnessed some of the worst violence in its modern history in recent months.
"If the violence ends and tourists come back, then things will get better again," said Ibrahim Fahmy, 18, who works in a silver shop near an 11th century Coptic Orthodox church. He said he was in favor of the constitution because it "would lead to stability" and "foreigners would return and buy things."
Egypt’s election officials reported that nearly 40 percent of registered voters turned out for the constitutional referendum and that more than 98 percent of voters backed the new document.
But local and international rights groups say a widespread clampdown on dissent and a mass media campaign urging people to vote for the constitution as the only solution to Egypt’s economic and social woes made it difficult to openly oppose the amended document.
"The political context in the run-up to the referendum impaired conditions to hold a free and fair referendum compared with international standards," said Transparency International, a global anti-corruption organization which sent foreign observers to monitor the vote.
Asked if he had voted, a young man buying cheese at a small shop in downtown Cairo downtown said "no," and added sarcastically, "I don’t need to; the (military-installed interim) will see that the referendum goes the way it wants."
He declined to elaborate or give his name.
"Many youth are angry, because they thought the revolution would bring democracy overnight," responded Reda Abdel Baset, 57, a furniture salesman.
Baset, a Muslim, said he had voted in favor of the new constitution because "it did away with the (Muslim) Brotherhood," and allowed more civil liberties.
"Egyptians are no longer afraid," he said. "If promises are not fulfilled, the people will come out and protest again."
Baset said he participated in both the uprising that toppled the 30-year rule of autocrat president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, as well in the protests against Morsi that led to his removal from office.
Meanwhile, articles for a new constitution were being written in Tunisia, another north African Arab nation.
It was the Tunisia’s revolution that led its autocratic president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, to flee the country in early 2011, inspiring similar uprisings in Egypt and other Arab countries.
Tunisia’s new constitution is being voted on article by article. It is widely heralded as the region’s most liberal for the universal freedoms and rights it espouses as well as for its calls that women be equally represented in Tunisia’s elected bodies.
While Egypt’s constitution "is designed to reaffirm the special status the armed forces leaders wish to retain at the heart of Egyptian politics," Tunisia’s "is designed to increase the powers of the legislature and the judiciary, a novelty in Middle Eastern political culture," Iranian columnist Amir Taheri wrote Jan. 17 in the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsatt.
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