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Give citizens a say
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 11 - 2007

Gamal Nkrumah sounds out the organisers and participants at the conference on citizenship rights in Egypt
A conference on citizen rights in Egypt was hailed as a landmark event this week as grandstanding and rhetoric was dropped in favour of pushing for the promulgation of laws to strengthen the rights of citizens.
Officially inaugurated by former United Nations secretary-general and head of the National Council for Human Rights Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the conference's keynote address was given by Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, who referred in his speech to the pivotal role citizenship rights should play as the country moves towards political reform and democratisation. Egypt, Abul- Magd stressed, must rise to the challenge of strengthening democratic practices, delivering a focussed speech that underlined the importance of buttressing the process of democratisation and ending discrimination and torture in Egypt.
Much media coverage of the event insinuated that the conference had been "hijacked" by disgruntled members of the Coptic community, a charge refuted by the organisers. "The conference was essentially about strengthening the citizenship rights of all Egyptians, Muslims as well as Copts. We aim to end discrimination in all its forms and strengthen equal opportunities to create a civil state in Egypt. Muslims and Christians speak the same language, both communities are yearning for an improvement in the country's human rights record. There is discrimination against bearded men [militant Islamists], for instance. And, yes, the question of Coptic rights was tackled," says Mohamed Fayek, former minister of information and head of the Cairo-based Arab Human Rights Organisation.
"The concept of citizenship rights itself needs to be changed as well as our conception of authority. The authorities must understand that they are part of the civil, democratic state we want to create. The authorities must learn to understand popular participation in the decision-making processes. Democracy does not mean simply the rule of the majority. Rather, democracy means that no group is marginalised or discriminated against."
Some members of the Coptic community, though, claim that the political views of Copts are denied expression in the public arena. They fear that the rising tide of political Islam will result in Copts losing basic citizenship rights to the narrow interpretation of Islam espoused by groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. And even when sensible regulations are in place, they argue, it is all too easy for rules and regulations to be ignored.
Many participants, both Coptic and Muslim, insisted such fears were groundless or else grossly exaggerated.
"We intend to ensure that every citizen lives in security and without fear, doesn't feel discriminated against and has a decent standard of living. Discrimination at work or in educational institutions must be outlawed. Torture is a national disgrace and should be totally banned," said Fayek.
The final communiqué noted that the participants had agreed to designate 2008 as the year in which national citizenship rights should be commemorated and urged the government, People's Assembly, political parties and NGOs to discuss in detail the citizenship rights of all Egyptians, including religious minorities such as the Coptic community.
"Who will help Copts draw the line between what they should do and what they shouldn't do, and what they should and shouldn't say in public? Is it the government, state security, Al-Azhar or the Muslim Brotherhood," asked one Coptic participant who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Gamal Assad, Coptic intellectual and former member of parliament, wondered who invited the vociferous self-styled representatives of Copts abroad, and why. He stressed that the best way to guarantee Coptic rights was to strengthen citizenship rights for all Egyptians, regardless of their religious affiliation.
Fayek told Al-Ahram Weekly that no specific invitations had been issued to Coptic emigres but that some individual Copts living abroad did attend the conference.
The National Council for Human Rights, an advisory government body with members appointed by the government, recently issued a report that conceded that Copts do have legitimate grievances and advised the government to drop information of affiliation from identity cards. Other human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, have warned that Copts and other minorities such as the Bahais are denied some citizenship rights, views that are echoed by some members of the Coptic community overseas.
According to the independent daily Nahdet Masr, the Coptic community overseas, particularly in the United States, attempted to "demolish the citizenship conference".
It quoted one Kameel Selim, described as a leader of US Copts, as saying that the "NCHR has a chance to prove its complete independence from the government".
There was a complaint by some prominent members of the Coptic Church that the number of churches in the country has been grossly underestimated. The number of mosques, on the other hand, is precisely stated as 74,610.
General Abu Bakr El-Guindy, head of the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, says the failure to compile the number of churches in Egypt is a serious, but unintentional, mistake. He assured reporters that in its annual report due to be published in June the number of churches in the country would be scrupulously collated.
"[The conference] is a beginning, a process. And we do not just intend to promulgate new laws, but to change attitudes and make sure that everyone abides by the laws," said Ghali.

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