Skip to main content

What is a Constitution Anyway?

Samuel Tadros

On the 15th and 22nd of December 2012 Egyptians headed again to the polls for the eighth time1 since the January 25, 2011 revolution which toppled President Mubarak and his regime. The frequency of the voting was not, however, an indication of a vibrant democracy taking shape; rather, it has been the result of the haphazard transition that post-revolutionary Egypt has undergone. Nearly two years after the revolution and after seven elections, Egypt has still not formed the institutions required to sustain a democracy. Today, the country only has an elected president and an upper chamber of parliament—a body which, even though it exists, suffers from the same specter of unconstitutionality under electoral law that haunted its lower counterpart’s existence and led ultimately to its dissolution. However, what was at stake in the elections was far more important than merely an elected body. Moreover, the election wasn’t purely about approving or rejecting a proposed constitution. Instead, the battle over Egypt’s proposed constitution is a function of the larger battle unfolding over ownership of the 2011 revolution and the very identity of the country.

As the saying goes, victory has many fathers, and the Egyptian revolution is no exception. The astonishing success of the revolution in bringing down the Mubarak regime has left political forces scrambling to take credit for the revolution and sole ownership of its narrative.2 Non-Islamists, who can claim few political successes if any over the past two years, have become nostalgic for the eighteen days of protest in Tahrir Square which set-off the revolution. Given their lack of anything to celebrate since the uprisings, non-Islamists are adamant on being the sole owners of the revolution. It was the non-Islamists, they claim, who sparked the revolution and who led its battles. In a sense, life itself began for them on January 25, 2011 when a new Egypt was born in Tahrir Square.3 At a time when the Muslim Brotherhood remained in the shadows hesitant to join the anti-regime protests, when Salafi Shaykhs were rejecting the popular calls for disorder, it was the non-Islamists who were on the front lines and who fought for every yard and inch of the street.

For Islamists, however, the revolution represents the culmination of a much longer historical struggle. Some trace the struggle back to 1954, when the Brotherhood believed itself close to taking power but was then ruthlessly crushed and forced underground by Nasser.4 Others trace it to an older battle between Islam and secularism that began in the nineteenth century and which Muslims have fought ever since against foreign missionaries, colonialism and Westernization.5 After languishing for years in Mubarak’s prisons, newly released members of jihadist groups asserted that it was their struggles that were the precursors to the 2011 revolution. When accused of being latecomers to and hangers-on of the revolution, Islamists are quick to respond that it was they who protected the revolution during its darkest moment in the “Battle of the Camel,” when all hope seemed to be lost. Left unsaid is the role Islamists played in the attacks on police stations and prisons throughout the country, which arguably was the most important factor in the regime’s collapse.

The struggle now between Islamists and non-Islamists over ownership of the revolution is only one part of the story, however. Before the constitutional referendum and the present-day impasse and street clashes between the supporters and detractors of President Morsi, the battle over the constitution and over Egypt’s future was fought not only along Islamist vs. non-Islamist lines, but among the Islamists themselves. Indeed, within the Islamist camp, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis were involved in a battle over what Islamism both meant and necessitated in post-revolutionary Egypt and how this should be expressed in the language of the country’s new constitution. Each side approached the question of the constitution from a different point of view, and while they have, for the time being, managed to overcome their differences and unite against non-Islamists, examining the past disputes between them provides fascinating insights into their current relationships and their prospective ones as well.

The Brotherhood’s Plan

The Muslim Brotherhood approached the constitutional writing process with a keen eye on how to manipulate both the process and the new document to further strengthen their power in Egyptian politics. With a long history of political participation and organization, the Brotherhood’s senior leadership is politically sophisticated and shrewd. They have clearly been aware that the new constitution could potentially give them unparalleled powers to shape the political process in their favor. As an Islamist movement that has sought to both rule Egypt and shape its people’s identity, no area of the new constitution was irrelevant to the Brotherhood, and all areas represented opportunities to enlarge the movement’s power.

The first area of attention for the Brotherhood was the political system. Following the uprising, when the Brotherhood was still unsure of the governing military council’s agenda and was also eager to assuage Western and non-Islamist fears, the Brotherhood had initially promised not to run a presidential candidate. Because of this, and since they were also well-aware of their movement’s potential to dominate a parliament, the Brotherhood leadership was adamant that the country adopt a parliamentary system. In articles and press releases the vices of a presidential system including its prospects for authoritarianism were highlighted while the virtues of parliamentarianism lauded. The Freedom and Justice Party’s official program stated explicitly that the Brotherhood preferred a parliamentary system.6 However, changed political circumstances and dynamics, including ones that led to the Brotherhood’s decision to contest the presidential elections (and ultimately win them), changed the movement’s thinking about the desired political system. Especially after the Constitutional Court dissolved the parliament, the Brotherhood sought to give its man in the presidential palace all the powers he needed to ensure its domination of the political system.

After the revolution, the Brotherhood wasn’t initially convinced that the regime had actually fallen. There was in fact disbelief over how easily Mubarak fell. After decades of conducting its affairs secretly under heavy state repression, the movement was sure that a “deep state” still stood and was actively conspiring against its vision of Islamist revival and reform. A series of court rulings dissolving parliament, the first constituent assembly, and barring the Brotherhood candidate Khairat El Shater from running for the presidency, while all legally sound, only served to strengthen this conspiratorial mindset. As a result, the Brotherhood felt driven to ensure that the sole institution it dominated, the presidency, was more powerful and able to defeat all others. Thus, the Brotherhood began to pay special attention to constitutional articles that dealt with the Supreme Court and the District Attorney, and attempted to limit their powers. Moreover, a means to exclude former ruling party cadres from competing in future elections was also sought.

The second focus of the Brotherhood’s attention in the unfolding constitutional debates concerned how to co-opt its traditional adversary, the military, so as to insure that it does not stand against the movement’s interests and plans. To accomplish this, the Brotherhood has publically sought to ensure that the military’s main organizational goals and interests are protected. Since the Brotherhood shares the military’s ultra-nationalist views and believes in the existence of an international (and also homegrown) conspiracy against Egypt and the Islamist movement, the Brotherhood’s decision-makers needed little convincing to adopt the military’s point of view on the defense budget.

Thirdly, the Brotherhood was clearly aware of the potential spoiler effect that the Salafis might have on the constitution drafting process. Because the Salafis far outnumber Brotherhood members and have the ability to mobilize the masses under the banner of Sharia, the Brotherhood needed to keep them on board and make sure that the Salafis were satisfied enough with the constitutional process. If there were ever a chance that the constitution would be defeated, it would be defeated by the Salafis. Thus, by all means necessary, the Brotherhood aimed to ensure that such an outcome would not materialize.

The Brotherhood’s efforts to mollify the Salafis were complicated, however, by the fact that the non-Islamists could also spoil their ambitions. Even though their voting power was and remains weak, the non-Islamists were widely seen by Islamists as controlling the country’s airwaves and strengthened by their connections to foreign institutions and leaders. While the Brotherhood would have preferred to dismiss the non-Islamists as an inconsequential minority, they also feared that the minority could mobilize foreign powers against the new constitution and the Islamist movement. If anything, the specter of 1954 and of the more recent experience in Algeria still loomed large over the Brotherhood’s thinking. For these reasons, the Brotherhood felt it was politically necessary in the course of the constitutional debates not to antagonize the non-Islamists and official opinion in Western countries.

Of course, despite these political considerations, strengthening the role of Sharia and the Islamic nature of the new constitution remained a top priority for the Brotherhood. Indeed, Khairat El Shater, the Brotherhood’s Deputy General Guide, explicitly stated that: “our main and overall mission as Muslim Brothers is to empower God’s Religion on Earth, to organize our life and the lives of people on the basis of Islam, to establish the Nahda of the Ummah and its civilization on the basis of Islam, and to the subjugation of people to God on Earth.”7 What this meant according to him is “restoring Islam in its all-encompassing meaning … and the Islamization of life.” Such a clear pronouncement leaves little doubt on the centrality of Islamist ideology to the movement’s agenda. El Shater has further identified “Islamic government” and the “Islamic state” as the fourth and fifth stages or future goals in the overall mission of the Brotherhood from its founding till today.8

But it is not only the contemporary tactical need to balance between non-Islamist and Salafi forces that may obscure the importance of Islamist ideology to the movement. Nor is it the Brotherhood’s pragmatic approach to politics or its attempt to assuage Western fears. More important is the specific Brotherhood understanding of what Islamization in practice entails. Unlike other Islamist movements that placed an emphasis on changing society from below by combating secularism, Westernization, imperialism or vices and innovations, the Brotherhood, which was modeled on the European fascist movements of the 1920s, has always maintained a top-down approach. Its goal has been to build a movement strong enough to control the state and use the state’s powers to implement its vision. Moreover, unlike the Salafis whose goal and ultimate mission is Islam, the Brotherhood’s sights are not set on Islam per se, but on building an Islamic State and restoring the power of “Islamic civilization.”

Indeed, the most important aspect of the Brotherhood’s project to “Islamize life” is the emphasis it places on the Gama’a or the “Society.” Since the movement’s founding by Hassan El Banna, the key difference between the Brotherhood and other Islamist reformers and revivalists such as Mohamed Abdu or the early Salafis of the 1920s is the importance that the former gives to the role of the Gama’a in realizing the Islamist project. In the view of contemporary leaders like El Shater, the Gama’a was not a Brotherhood innovation, but rather reflects El Banna’s discovery of the “Prophet’s Method.” It is, therefore, not merely the case that the Brotherhood views their party as the vanguard of the Islamist project and, thus, what serves the party serves the project and its mission. Instead, the idea of the Gama’a runs much deeper, and is part of the very theological foundation of the Brotherhood. For example, El Shater quotes the second Caliph, Omar, as saying: “There is no religion without a Gama’a.” The boundary line, therefore, between the Brotherhood’s mission (of Islamization) and its method (the Gama’a) is not simply murky, it is nonexistent. As such, whatever serves to strengthen the Gama’a automatically serves the overall goal of restoring Islam to its all-encompassing role in people’s lives.

The Salafi Agenda

Yasser Borhamy, a member of the constituent assembly and one of the leaders of the Salafi Call (the mother organization of the Nour Party), explained in a recent video that “participation in political work had as one of its most important goals participation in writing the constitution.”9 The issue of the constitution and the role allocated to Sharia in its articles were not only the main campaigning platform of the Nour Party in parliamentary elections but, more importantly, it was the central concern of the Salafi leadership. Given the fluctuating nature of Egyptian political dynamics, the Salafi agenda and its goals concerning the Sharia have developed over time.

In the wake of the revolution, the Salafis were initially fearful that non-Islamists were seeking to establish a secularist state. Since the political debate at the time centered on whether to write a new constitution or amend the old one until an elected body could be chosen to write a new document, Salafis were content with playing defense. Since they worried that non-Islamists were seeking to write a new constitution to remove Ariticle 2 of the old one (which stipulates the principles of Sharia as the main source of legislation), the first active participation by Salafis in Egyptian politics came in the form of massive mobilization in the March 2011 referendum. The results were spectacular, with the unorganized coalition of Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military winning a whopping 77 percent of the vote.

With the threat to Article 2 defeated, and with their street strength proven, Salafis embraced politics with a new found enthusiasm. For years, Salafi scholars had argued that political participation and democracy were forms of polytheism that were rooted in modern man’s arrogation of God’s unique power as legislator. But now, important Salafi scholars, especially those of the Alexandria-based Salafi Call, have begun to argue both for political participation and for the formation of political parties. Importantly, this change of mind has not occurred as the result of a comprehensive embrace of democracy and democratic politics per se. Instead, it has been the result of a Salafist call for participation in elections that is rooted in a theological argument based on the doctrine of necessity (darura). It is because the Salafis perceive a threat to Sharia and the Islamic identity of the country that most of them, but not all, have deemed it justified to rise above their principled objections to democracy and enter the political competition.

Salafi participation in politics has also partly been driven by their fear of the Brotherhood. There exists deep theological differences between both currents of Islamism, and there is no love lost between them. The Salafis, especially the Salafi Call, understand that only by a strong and effective presence in Egyptian political life can they make sure that the Brotherhood does not “eliminate” them.10

The Salafi approach to constitution writing, and their turn to politics more generally, have been motivated by their twin desires of “increasing good and decreasing evil.” To increase the good in society, Salafis have sought to cement the role of Sharia in the new constitution. To decrease the evil, Salafi members of the constituent assembly have sought to remove or block constitutional articles deemed “un-Islamic” either because of their terminology or because of their basis in secular legal traditions. While new to politics, Salafis have proven themselves to be quick learners. They approached the constitution writing process with a clear and coherent agenda, including with specific articles that they wanted to see incorporated into the text or removed. They also learned when to twist arms and when to cut deals, and they’ve demonstrated a unique capacity to mobilize the street, which they’ve threatened to do when it serves their agenda and to bring outside pressure to bear on constitutional deliberations. Should their initial attempts to push their preferred articles fail, the Salafis always had a back-up plan and a clear understanding of how to express articles in a language that would create loopholes for them to push their agenda in the future.

To “increase the good,” the Salafi constitutional agenda has been concerned with a number of articles, but chief among them is Article Two. In the previous constitution, the article said “the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation.” From the Salafi perspective, the word “principles” was a loose term that allowed so much room for interpretation that it rendered the Sharia irrelevant to Egyptian political life. They were further infuriated by the Constitutional Court’s interpretation of the word “principles” as only those texts of Sharia that are definitively established as authentic and interpreted by scholars. This made the implementation of any rulings according to Sharia virtually impossible as most of the Sunna would be dismissed. Changing the article’s language became the Salafis’ main goal. To achieve their end they proposed either replacing the word “principles” with the word “rulings” or deleting the word altogether and maintaining Sharia and not its principles as the main source of legislation.

Moreover, Salafis suggested a whole set of articles that would increase the Islamic identity of the constitution. They proposed adding in the first article that Egypt belonged to the Islamic nation, and they also suggested a new article that would ban blasphemy. Most importantly, they attempted to replace the constitutional principle of the sovereignty of the people with the sovereignty of God. This latter issue is of vital importance to Salafis. Under the doctrine of Hakimiyya, God is the sole legislator. Through the final message to his Prophet, God has given mankind a complete and perfect framework of reference and rules for life. Those rules are all-encompassing and unchangeable. Acknowledgment of this role of God is an article of faith in Islam. To reject this and argue that the people can legislate for themselves and that sovereignty belongs to them is seen by Salafis as an act of apostasy.

To “decrease evil” in society, the Salafis sought to remove from the constitution any language which they deemed as un-Islamic. A key target was the word “democracy.” The Salafis attempted to replace it with the word “__Shura__“ arguing it is a more “authentic” term. The real reason, however, was the Salafi view of the two terms. Shura only allows deliberation on issues that do not violate the provisions of Sharia. Democracy on the other hand is viewed as without a limitation and as permitting what God has forbidden and forbidding what God has permitted. Another key word that received the Salafis’ wrath was “citizenship,” which is understood in the Egyptian context as complete equality between Christians and Muslims. Because Muslims and non-Muslims are not seen as equals (in legal terms) in the Salafi conception of the Islamic State, the Salafis have sought to eliminate the concept of citizenship from constitutional deliberations. Borhamy, in a video speech, attempted to defend this position by saying that the word “citizenship” is not necessarily a bad one; in fact, he argued that it describes harmony and cooperation between members of a society, and that these are goods that are encouraged by Islam. Nonetheless, Borhamy concedes that he attempted to remove the concept from public discussion anyway. (In the end, the Salafis managed to remove mention of citizenship from the first article of the constitution, but it remains in Article 6.)

The Salafis also attempted to proscribe the freedoms guaranteed in the constitution. Language that guarantees absolute freedom of thought, religion and creativity is unacceptable to Salafis. To limit these freedoms, Salafis sought to put language in each article that would permit those freedoms within the premises of Sharia. Similarly, in order to deal with social vices not punishable by secular law, such as consensual sex and bank interest rates, the Salafis sought to insert language into the constitution that would allow society to punish such “crimes” given that they are punishable according to Sharia.

Islamists Assembled

By the end of February 2012, the upper and lower chambers of the Egyptian parliament had both been elected. Islamists overwhelmingly dominated both chambers, the first with 72 percent and the second with 83 percent. Immediately after the leaderships of both chambers were elected, they started the process of selecting the one hundred members who would comprise the constituent assembly.

The focal point of contention between Islamists and non-Islamists became what percentage of the one hundred-member body would be selected from members of parliament. In reality, this dispute over whether assembly members should come from parliament or not was largely irrelevant, given that what really mattered was how the assembly members would be chosen and the percentage allocated to each political grouping. Nonetheless, the non-Islamists chose that banner for their fight against the assembly. With the Salafis pushing for 70 percent of the assembly to be selected from parliamentarians and non-Islamists for 10 percent, the Brotherhood settled on 50 percent. On March 24, both chambers of parliament met to select the list of members of the constituent assembly. Non-Islamists were shocked to discover that the Brotherhood and Salafis had secretly agreed on the one hundred-member list, and even chose who would represent the non-Islamists. This meant the official vote on the list was an empty formality. In the end, the constituent assembly was 75 percent Islamist.

Non-Islamists felt betrayed. The Brotherhood had reneged on its promises to form a representative and inclusive constitutional assembly that did not exclude other political groups. Out of the whole assembly, for example, only five members were Christians; one of these was a Brotherhood member and none of them represented the Coptic Church. It also had only six women, four of them Brotherhood members and the others Christians.11 Immediately upon the assembly’s formation, the 24 non-Islamist members announced their resignations from the body. Since the military council was still in control of the country, the Islamists were not in full control of state institutions. The military expressed its displeasure with the way the constitutional assembly was formed. Non-Islamists filed court cases against the assembly and on April 10, 2012, the courts ruled in their favor, thereby dissolving the constituent assembly and returning the process back to square one.12

The presidential elections changed political dynamics once again. On May 23-24, 2012, Egyptians voted to elect their first post-revolution president. Since no candidate won an outright majority, the two highest vote-receivers, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, were pitted against each other in a second round of voting on June 16-17. Because of the need for non-Brotherhood support for their candidate, Brotherhood leaders attempted to cut deals in two contradictory directions. To win over the Salafis, they promised that Sharia would be implemented and that the word “principles” would be eliminated from Article Two. To win over non-Islamists, the Brotherhood attempted to cut a grand bargain between all political groupings on the composition of the new constituent assembly.

After numerous meetings and disagreements, a deal was finally reached in which 50 percent of the assembly members would be Islamists and 50 percent would belong to non-Islamists, though it remained unclear how representatives from state institutions, trade unions, professional syndicates and religious institutions would be allocated.13 It was agreed that in its internal voting on articles, consensus would be sought, but if that failed, a 67 percent majority would be needed and eventually a 57 percent would be required. The deal was signed on the June 8, 2012 by all political forces, although controversy soon erupted over the details of the exact shares. Non-Islamists soon discovered that they had been tricked as the share allocated to official entities was counted as belonging to their half, even though Islamist members of these official entities meant they would largely support Islamist agenda.

In all events, the Egyptian Parliament—in what would prove to be one of its last acts—codified the agreement and elected the new constitutional assembly members on June 12, 2012.14 Two days later, the Constitutional Court dissolved the lower chamber of the parliament, arguing that it was unconstitutional because elections did not provide the same equal opportunity to independent candidates that they did to party candidates. Though non-Islamists had a contentious relationship with the military, many hoped that the military would step-in and provide a check against the Islamists. But such hopes were proven delusional when President Morsi sacked the military’s leadership on August 12 and, more importantly, cancelled the SCAF’s constitutional declaration which provided some guarantees of inclusivity in the new constitution. Non-Islamists were from that point forward completely on their own, their fate awaiting the outcome of the colossal battle that was to begin among the Islamists.

A Clash of Islamisms

The constitutional battle everyone was bracing revolved around Article 2, and the Salafis came well-prepared for the fight. The debates intensified as non-Islamists refused to change the language of the article and the Brotherhood, appearing to watch disinterestedly from the sidelines, reneged on its promise to Salafis. Meanwhile, Salafi leader Borhamy offered the assembly four options; either 1) the word “principles” should be removed from the article; or 2) the whole article would be disputed in a separate referendum; or 3) an explanation of the word “principles” would be provided; or 4) the Salafis would mobilize against the constitution in the polls.15 Since the first option was completely unacceptable to non-Islamists, the second meant the Salafi version would pass, and the fourth guaranteed the constitution would be voted down; therefore, the only possibility for non-Islamists and the Brotherhood was to take Borhamy’s third option and include a new article explaining what the word “principles” means.

Naturally, the issue then became who would provide such a definition. In an ironic twist of fate, secular non-Islamists went to Al-Azhar for religious support and protection. While Al-Azhar is hardly favorable to liberal freedom, it has frequently clashed with Islamists, and it shares with the non-Islamists a common fear of the Salafis. Indeed, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El Tayeb, has been feeling especially vulnerable to growing Islamist power in the country given his previous membership in Mubarak’s ruling party. He was desperately looking for ways to protect himself and his institution, and this inclined Al-Azhar to cooperate with the non-Islamists.

The Senior Scholars Board of Al-Azhar thus released its ruling on how the “principles of Sharia” should be interpreted, and this would later become the basis for Article 219 of the new constitution. Initially, Al-Azhar’s suggested article stated that “the principles of Islamic Sharia include its total evidence and its fundamental and jurisprudence basis.” The Salafis were not satisfied with this, and Borhamy insisted on adding to the text the following words: “and its accepted sources according to the doctrines of Sunnis.” This addition had two elements. First, by stating that Sharia principles could only be interpreted on the basis of “accepted sources,” Borhamy was limiting interpretation to the five accepted sources of Sharia; Quran, Hadith, Igma’a, Qiyas and Ijtihad. Secondly, it was important to the Salafis to state that it is only the five doctrines of Sunnism that are acceptable since Al-Azhar teaches Shi’a doctrines and one of its previous Shaykhs has ruled that it is permissible for Muslims to pray according to Shi’a doctrines. It was the Salafi’s sectarian understanding that ultimately carried the day.

Defining how “principles” should be understood was one thing, but setting up a scholarly body to provide an interpretation whenever a question arose was a different matter entirely. The body naturally suited for such a task was Al-Azhar. The trap that non-Islamists noticed was that this would create a non-elected religious body that would determine what was acceptable according to Sharia and what was not. This would be the first step in creating a theocratic state. After initially agreeing, Al-Azhar was encouraged to refuse such a role. With the Brotherhood agreeing with Al-Azhar, Salafis immediately went on the attack. The Salafis threatened to demand the deletion of the word “principles” from Article 2 once again and, furthermore, they threatened to demand changing the law governing Al-Azhar and removing the Grand Imam in order to replace him with an Islamist who would implement God’s law.16

By the end of July 2012, a new battle emerged over who would be appointed the new minister of religious endowments. In order to appease Salafis, the name of Mohamed Yousri Ibrahim, a Salafi who is especially close to the Brotherhood and to El Shater, was floated as the next minister of religious endowments. Al-Azhar’s fear of an Islamist takeover seemed to be materializing, and it fought against this nomination with full force. As rumors circulated that Al-Azhar was asking the military for protection, Salafis and Azharites began to hurl accusations at one another and Salafis accused the Grand Imam of high treason.17 The crisis was finally averted when a compromise candidate was nominated for the ministerial post.

A grand bargain was then proposed. This proposal involved keeping Article 2 as it is and Article 219 would also be included with Borhamy’s language. Further, a new article would be added (Article 4) that would explain the role of Al-Azhar and, most important from the Grand Imam’s perspective, it explicitly stated that he could not be removed from his post.18 Moreover, another new article would be introduced (Article 3) stating that non-Muslims are to be governed in their personal status affairs and on issues pertaining to choosing their religious leaders by the principles of their religious laws. The grand bargain seemed to have provided each side with something to celebrate, and it was ultimately backed by all political groupings. However, non-Islamists soon realized they had fallen once again into a hole and attempted to revoke the agreement.

The Salafis had achieved a major victory, but their appetite had hardly been satisfied. They immediately pushed for more. Their new proposals included replacing the word “democracy” with “Shura” in the constitutional language concerning the basis of the political system, and to replace the phrase that “sovereignty belongs to the people” with “sovereignty belongs to God.”19 They also pushed a whole new set of proposals concerning limiting each of the freedoms listed in the constitution by adding a line to each of them stating “as long as they do not contradict Sharia,” and for a blasphemy article. They also sought an article stipulating that parliament could not pass any law that contradicted Sharia.

The Brotherhood agreed with the substance of many of these Salafi proposals, especially on limiting freedoms and the blasphemy clause. Moreover, the Brotherhood rejected all attempts by non-Islamists to introduce constitutional language asserting the complete equality between men and women; such gender equality, the Brotherhood argued, was limited by Sharia. The Brotherhood also rejected international treaties that affirmed female equality as well as sexual freedoms, and insisted that international treaties and agreements are only applicable as long as they did not give freedoms or rights rejected by Sharia. Fearing repercussions domestically and internationally, the Brotherhood refused to relent on the article concerning sovereignty, and it joined non-Islamists in voting the suggestion down.

Meanwhile, the Salafis demonstrated their knack for the political game. In Eid sermons, Salafi preachers brought the debates over the constitutional articles from the halls of the assembly to the mosques and to the streets. Borhamy in his sermon on August 19, 2012 warned that amongst the Egyptian people there were some who rejected the rules of Sharia and some who wished for freedom so that they could be slaves to the Devil. He stated that anyone who accepted a law or regulation besides what God has commanded is guilty of worshiping someone else besides God.20 Moreover, Nader Bakar, the Nour Party spokesman, argued that the anti-Muslim online movie, Innocence of Muslims, proved the need for an article in the constitution that criminalized insulting God, his Prophets and the Companions.21

Growing Salafi demands were beginning to take their toll on non-Islamists’ tolerance. By the beginning of October 2012, the constitutional assembly was once again descending into crisis. Non-Islamists had come to realize the extent of the damage all those articles would have on the future of the country and were attempting to cancel the grand bargain that they had previously signed onto. Salafis were becoming increasingly furious with such backsliding, and their rhetoric grew stronger as they threatened to mobilize the street. Nour Party leader Younis Makhyoun attacked Al Azhar’s Grand Imam for backing away from previous agreements and called for an emergency meeting to discuss putting an end to articles that contradicted Sharia. He also rejected demands by non-Islamists to include an article banning human trafficking as such a phenomenon, according to him, did not exist in Egypt.22

The Critical Moment

By the end of October, Salafi anger with the Brotherhood was about to explode. The Salafi Call issued an official statement championing the various articles it proposed inside the assembly on limiting freedoms, adding “Shura” and attempting to add sovereignty to God. The enemies of Sharia were “tyrants who were trying to erase the nation’s identity”. The Salafi Call had established Al Nour party in June 2011 and put the defense of identity at the forefront of its political message. It declared the acceptance of Sharia as synonymous with being a Muslim.23

From the point of view of Salafis, the Brotherhood failed to keep its promises. Above all, the Brotherhood failed to keep the non-Islamists in check. After all, they reasoned, an Islamist president was not elected to permit non-Islamists to continue shaping the country’s future. It is worth noting, however, that the Salafi Call was feeling a more radical pressure. Apolitical Salafis who had refused to take part in the political process were pointing to its failure to uphold Sharia as proof that the initial decision to embrace political participation was wrong. On the other end of the spectrum, more revolutionary Salafi movements like the Salafi Front and the movement gathered around Hazem Abu Ismail were threatening to sideline the Salafi Call on the streets as the true defenders of Sharia.

Mohamed Saad El Azhary, a Salafi representative in the constituent assembly, gave an interview in which he voiced the frustrations of his colleagues.24 He spoke of conspiracies and wars to remove Sharia from the constitution and of the Brotherhood’s betrayal and its failure to remember Morsi’s campaign promise to implement Sharia. Sharia, he argued, was the nation’s identity and it had to be implemented in full with its principles, provisions and rules. Salafis had already compromised when they accepted not including “rulings of Sharia” and instead agreeing to keep the word principles with the new article on interpretation. The Salafi Call and its Al-Nour party were, however, still hoping to avert a clash with the Brotherhood. The message thus had two sides. On the one hand, Salafi-Brotherhood cooperation in foiling attempts by non-Islamists to insist on complete equality between men and women and rejecting references to international treaties were praised. They also reminded the Brotherhood of its previous promises to implement the Sharia. On the other hand, the Salafis threatened that if the final document was not to their liking they would hold massive demonstrations and, more importantly, reveal to the public who inside the constituent assembly voted against Sharia, and thus expose the Brotherhood.

Other Salafis felt no obligation to keep the careful balance that Al Nour wanted to maintain. Salafi calls for massive demonstrations on November 2 under the name “A Million Men for Sharia” began to circulate. Adel Afifi, President of the Salafi Asala Party asked the Egyptian people to go to the streets to reject the constitution. “Support God and reject the Constitution” were his fiery words, further declaring that anyone who voted yes on the constitution is an apostate from Islam.25 On the other hand, Gama’a Islamiya attempted to play the role of go between.26 Its rhetoric, however, was as fiery as that of other Salafis. It demanded “a constitution that would liberate Egypt from French legal colonialism” and included the words “in accordance with Sharia” in every article on freedoms and rights.27

Increasingly cornered, the Muslim Brotherhood went on the defensive. In late October, it issued an official statement detailing the centrality of Sharia in its ideology and agenda.28 The Brotherhood movement was “founded to revive the spirit of Islam” it declared. This Islamic revival was not only spiritual, but was “the road to the Umma’s renaissance and its recovery of its position and civilizational role.” Responding directly to the Salafist attacks, the statement declared that “Sharia is one of the most important issues that they are occupied with and seek to consolidate in society” and that “our brothers were exposed to martyrdom, imprisonment and detention for this cause over the decades.” It asserted that the Brotherhood would “in no way compromise on demanding Sharia.” Moreover, the statement touted as proof of the movement’s commitment to Sharia the support it gave to the explanatory article in the constitution as well as their rejection of complete equality between men and women and of international treaties that contradicted Sharia. It also claimed that the position occupied by Sharia in the new constitution would allow the next parliament to put it into action by codifying its laws and rulings.

Four days later, with the pressure from the Salafists still mounting, the task of defending the Brotherhood’s conduct in the assembly fell onto Abdel Rahman El Borr, the movement’s mufti. El Borr affirmed that the Brotherhood would not accept any article in the constitution that contradicted Sharia and again underscored their insistence on limiting equality with Sharia and on rejecting international treaties.29

The Brotherhood’s self-defense was too little, too late to appease the already agitated Salafi rank and file. The “Friday of Sharia” was delayed by a week to November 9th as demonstrations by Salafis continued.30 While the Al Nour party did not officially mobilize for the demonstrations, it nonetheless used the opportunity to pressure the members of the constituent assembly. One of their spokesmen declared that Egypt’s constitution had already been written 1400 years ago (when the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad), and that millions were ready to write the Islamic constitution with their own blood.31 Firebrand Hazem Abu Ismail threatened to remain in a sit-in until Sharia was implemented and declared the current article explaining Sharia as unsatisfactory to the demands of the street.32 By far the most important pronouncement, however, was the one issued by the Shura Council of the Ulama. The council, which is composed of ten of the top Salafi scholars and clerics in Egypt,33demanded that the new constitution state explicitly that Sharia is the source of legislation and that any law which contradicts Sharia should be void. They also raised Salafi demands by both rejecting the proposed article on the rights of minorities to be governed by their own religious principles in personal status matters and by rejecting the inclusion of the very word “democracy,” which was deemed contrary to Sharia. The council finally called on all Muslims to support Sharia.34

The day after the Salafi demonstrations, another Brotherhood leader, Farid Ismail, reiterated the movement’s commitment to rejecting any constitutional article that contradicted Sharia. Furthermore, he declared that “Sharia is a red line in the constitution on which no compromises or negotiations would take place.”35 Another Brotherhood legal expert framed the new impasse as a fight that pitted believers against non-Islamists who were attempting to achieve complete gender equality; and also adopted the Salafi language on why the explanatory article was necessary.36

By then, most non-Islamist members of the constituent assembly had declared their withdrawal from the body citing the Islamists’ lack of inclusion and insistence on writing a polarizing document. By November 17, Borhamy was still standing firm and threatening anyone who was against Sharia with massive million-men demonstrations and demanding Morsi’s fulfillment of his campaign promise and implementing Sharia. Liberals, he stated, were fighting religion and he and other Salafis would not allow changing a single letter of what had been agreed upon.37 His pupil, Shaykh Abdel Moneim El Shahat, bluntly blamed the Church for the constitutional impasse and warned that if the Islamist-driven constituent assembly was stopped, Salafis would demand a new assembly elected directly by the people and would write a pure Islamic constitution.38 Salafis were getting close to the point of turning the tables on the Brotherhood and destroying the whole process if their demands were not met.

The Brotherhood-Salafi Alliance

At the last minute, an open clash between the Brotherhood and Salafis was averted. Instead, the two pillars of the Islamist movement managed to temporarily solve their disagreements and form a common front against non-Islamists. The secret behind the sudden change was, of course, President Morsi’s Constitutional Declaration on November 22, 2012. With non-Islamists withdrawing from the constituent assembly, and with the Constitutional Court scheduled to issue a ruling soon on the constitutionality of the assembly’s formation as well as the expected verdict on the unconstitutionality of parliament’s upper chamber and its dissolution, Morsi struck first. By now entirely convinced that a web of deep conspiracy was being spun around him, Morsi immunized the assembly and the upper chamber from any court verdict. While the president certainly must’ve expected a reaction from non-Islamists, the scope and power of their reaction combined with that of the judiciary far exceeded his expectations. Faced with such stiff opposition, the Brotherhood now knows it cannot fight on two fronts against both Salafis and non-Islamists. Desperately needing Salafi support, the Brotherhood reached out to Borhamy and an agreement was soon struck.

The exact content of the deal remains very much a mystery. It most certainly included an agreement on the constitution. Even though Morsi had officially given the assembly two more months to finish the document, getting the Salafis on board required resolving the document sooner. In two days, the whole constitution was formalized and approved, article by article, by members of a constituent assembly that by now had hardly a single non-Islamist in its ranks.39 Newspaper stories shed light on other parts of the deal,40 which was said to include promises about Salafi representation in the next government and in choosing governors. The Salafis, for their part, were expected to mobilize on the street in support of Morsi and important Shaykhs were to rally for a yes vote on the constitution.

The new constitution, which was immediately put for a referendum, represents an almost complete Salafi victory. Article 1 removed the word “citizenship” as one basis of the new political order and affirmed instead Egypt’s allegiance to the “Islamic Nation,” a greater order to which the country of Egypt belonged. The articles that Borhamy insisted on concerning the role of al-Azhar as interpreter of Sharia and the explanatory article were all included, the word Shura was added to the basis of the political system, and so was the blasphemy article. While the constitution maintained the article on the sovereignty of the people, in a concession to Salafis, the word “only” was removed indicating the existence of another unmentioned sovereignty. The ban on the formation of religious parties was naturally removed. Freedom of belief was guaranteed in principle, but proscribed in practice: the constitution limited the construction of houses of worship to the three Abrahamic religions; it also qualified religious freedom with the words “as organized by the law.” Notwithstanding the potential limits this imposed on other faiths, the constitution’s language effectively enabled the state to continue to deny Christians an adequate number of churches. The new document also included an article that established a new administrative body for religious endowments, a development that potentially paves the way for controlling the Church’s finances, a demand the Brotherhood had in its party program.41 International treaties are only acceptable as long as they do not contradict the rulings of the constitution (that is, the Sharia), and the article that prohibits discrimination no longer has the added explanation “on the basis of sex, origin, religion, and creed.”42

By far the most important Salafi achievement may be found in Articles 10, 76 and 81. Under Article 10, society was given a role of responsibility next to the state for protecting the values of the Egyptian family. The addition of society opens the door for Saudi-style religious committees commanding good and forbidding evil. It also permits Hesbah cases,43 which the Brotherhood endorsed in its party program.44 The old constitution included the famous legal principle “no crime or punishment without a law.” Such an article was unacceptable to Salafis because what they consider crimes are not legally penalized such as consensual sex and bank interests. With the help of an Islamist jurist, Borhamy managed to introduce the words “or a constitutional text” into article 76. Given that the constitution includes the language on the principles of Sharia in Article 2 and their explanation in Article 219, this addition creates a serious loophole under which a whole set of “crimes” become punishable. Finally, in Article 81, it is explained that constitutional rights and freedoms shall be exercised only insofar as they do not contradict the principles in the section of the constitution on state and society (that is, the Sharia). In effect, all the articles backing religious freedom, freedom of the press, and freedom of thought have thus been limited.45 In fact, Borhamy proudly declared to his fellow Salafis that “this constitution has restrictions that have never been included in any Egyptian constitution before.”46

In the end, the agreement between the Brotherhood and Salafis was beneficial to both sides. In return for getting most if not all of what they wanted in the constitution, Salafis were happy to provide the Brotherhood with the street support and political defense that they needed. Borhamy led the charge accusing the Islamists’ opponents of being an unholy alliance of liberals, the Church and the remnants of the Mubarak regime who were bent on igniting chaos in the country.47 Other leaders of the Salafi Call and Nour party followed suit by attacking non-Islamists, portraying them as against religion, and arguing that the implementation of Sharia would bring forth blessings to Egypt.48 Gama’a Islamiya also took part in the campaign.49 For its part, the Brotherhood was more than happy to highlight the outpouring of Islamist support which it received in an attempt to win greater support from Islamists and conservatives.50 By coming to an agreement with the Salafis, the Brotherhood effectively unified Islamist ranks, and this permitted the Brotherhood to focus all of its attention and efforts in fighting the battle with non-Islamists and securing its hold on the state.51

However, this grand Islamist alliance and the new constitution itself have not been without their Islamist detractors. Within the Salafi movement, apolitical Salafis, known by their enemies as “Madkhaliya,” cursed those Salafis who backed a constitution that ruled contrary to God’s laws. If a Muslim believed in the articles of the new constitution, he was an apostate as the document did not acknowledge the doctrine of Hakemeya and subjected God’s laws to man’s will.52 Jihadists for their part likewise rejected the constitution and denounced its supporters.53 Salafi Call members attempted to answer their critiques by defending the new constitution and pointing out their successes in strengthening its Islamic character.54

The debate over the new Egyptian constitution thus provides a revealing glimpse into intra-Islamist dynamics. While the fall of the Mubarak regime and its security apparatus has provided the Brotherhood with unprecedented opportunities to acquire power and begin implementing their vision, it has also unleashed an extraordinary challenge in the form of Salafism. Unlike the non-Islamists whom the Brotherhood have previously handled with caution but now routinely dismiss as an insignificant minority, the Salafis present a direct challenge to the Brotherhood both because of their raw numbers and street power and because of their unique ability to claim ownership of the Islamist cause and identity.

The Salafi monster is thus unlike anything that the Brotherhood has ever dealt with in the past. It also comes at a time of considerable ideological incoherence within the Brotherhood, which has failed to produce any original intellectual contribution since Said Qutb. Thus far, the Brotherhood has been able to throw the monster a bone or two every once in a while, but this may not be sustainable over the long run. As Salafis become better organized, they will not be content with accepting the few pieces the Brotherhood throws at them. As the fight over Egypt’s constitution proves, the monster’s appetite is only growing and there may come a day in the future when the Salafist movement desires to eat the whole meal.

1 Egyptians went to the polls for the first time after the revolution in March 2011 to vote on a temporary constitution, twice to elect a lower chamber of parliament, twice for the upper chamber and twice to elect a President.
2 Wael El Sahhar, "It is their revolution", Libraliyya, 3 December 2012. Available at:
3 The line “Egypt was born in Tahrir” is perhaps the best description of this mindset. It comes from a song by a leading Leftist band.
4 In a telling incident on the kind of historical memory the MB maintains, the day after Mohamed Morsi was declared the winner of the Presidential elections, Khaled Abdel Kader Ouda, an MB politician and the son of prominent MB leader Abdel Kader Ouda who was killed by Nasser in December 1954, announced that he and his brothers would finally hold a condolence gathering for their dead father. In the tradition of Southern Egypt, condolence gatherings are not held for the murdered until their families have extracted revenge on those who murdered them. “Khaled Ouda: Now I take condolences in the Martyr Abdel Kader Ouda”. June 29, 2012. Masry Al Youm.
5 The Gama’a Islamiya in a statement supporting the constitution called it “a constitution that saves Egypt from the French legal colonialism”
6 “Freedom and Justice Party Program”, (p. 11). The detailed party program is available for download in Arabic on the FJP's official website.
7 "Khairat El Shater on the Nahda Project". April 10, 2012. Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Volume 13.
8 The six stages of the overall Muslim Brotherhood mission are: Building the Muslim individual, the Muslim family, the Muslim society, the Islamic government, the global Islamic State and reaching the status of Ustathiya with that State.
9 The video features a gathering of some of the most influential Salafi preachers and scholars in Egypt. In the hour long video, which only has Borhamy’s initial remarks and his answers to questions, Borhamy is attempting to explain to his fellow Salafis what his plan in the constitutional assembly was, highlight his efforts and show how he managed to dramatically alter the language of the document both explicitly and implicitly by creating enough loopholes for Salafis to use in the future.
10 In this video, Borhamy tells the story of how Brotherhood members throw him outside a mosque before. He warns that if the Brotherhood is empowered it will eradicate Salafis and argues that only by a strong Salafi presence in the political sphere will the two currents maintain a good relationship. “El Borhamy: If the Brotherhood is empowered they will eradicate the Salafi Call.”
11 Hesham El Gheniemy, "With the names: The announcement of the committee of 100 tasked with writing the constitution", Al Masry Al Youm, 25 March 2012.
12 Wahid Abdel Meguid, “The Full Story of the Battle of the Constitutional Assembly Part 1”, Al Shorouk, 20 June 2012.
13 Wahid Abdel Meguid, “The Full Story of the Battle of the Constitutional Assembly Part 2”, Al Shorouk, 21 June 2012.
14 “Winners of membership of the Constituent Assembly for the Egyptian Constitution”, Egyptian State Information Service.
15 Available at:
16 Hamdy Dabsh, “The crisis of Article Two returns to square one”, Al Masry Al Youm, 21 July 2012.
17 Salah El Din Hassan, “The discord over the Religious Endowments minister is ignited and the Salafis accuse the Sheikh of Al Azhar with high treason”, El Watan, 30 July 2012.
18 Borhamy in the video of his talk to fellow Salafi scholars highlights this as a tactical act. By protecting the Grand Imam, they won his support for the grand bargain. Borhamy admitted that making the Grand Imam irremovable from office, was of course unacceptable, but remedies would be found in the future, by passing a law through parliament that would put a retirement age for the job and thus get rid of the current Grand Imam.
19 Hamdy Dabsh, “Borhamy: We will call for the rejection of the constitution if the constitutional assembly abstained from interpreting the word principles”, Al Masry Al Youm, 20 August 2012.
20 Kamil Kamil, “Borhamy during the Eid sermon: God owns us and there are those who reject the rules of his Shari’a”, Youm 7, 19 August 2012. Available at:
21 Shaimaa Rashid, “Bakar asks for adding an article to the Constitution criminalizing insulting the Devine, his Prophets and the Companions”, Al Shorouk, 10 September 2012.
22 Hamdy Dabsh, “Nour threatens the Constitutional Assembly: We will respond strongly if the constitution violates God’s law”, Al Masry Al Youm, 1 October 2012.
23 Salafi Call and Nour Party and the Constitution and Shari’a”, Salaf Voice, 23 October 2012.
24 ] Ramy Nawwar, “Salafi leader Mohamed Saad El Azhary, member of the Constituent Assembly to Youm 7: Salafis want to apply Islamic Shari’a with its provisions, principles and rules. Seculars and the Church insist on excluding Shari’a from the Constitution”, Youm 7, 27 October 2012. Available at:
25 Hamdy Dabsh, “President of Asala: Whoever votes yes on the Constitution is an apostate and will be thrown in Hell”, Al Masry Al Youm, 27 October 2012. Available at:
26 “Gama’a Islamiya seeks a Constitution that liberates Egypt from the French Legal colonialism”, Al Shorouk, 28 October 2012.
27 “Gama’a: A serious attempt in the constitution to solve the problem of seculars with Shari’a and identity”, Al Shorouk, 31 October 2012.
28 “Muslim Brotherhood Statement on Islamic Shari’a and the Nation’s Identity”, Ikhwanonline, 31 October 2012.
29 “El Borr: We will not accept any Constitutional article that contradicts Islamic Shari’a”, Freedom and Justice Portal, 4 November 2012.
30 Ramy Nawwar, “A Salafi Call leader demands Islamists to rally for the million men Shari’a”, Youm 7, 1 November 2012.
31 Ramy Nawwar, “Yousry Hammad to members of the Constituent: Write the Constitution as God commanded”, Youm7, 9 November 2012.
32 Ramy Nawwar, “Abu Ismail: We will come next Friday to Tahrir and will not return until Shari’a is implemented”, Youm7, 9 November 2012.
33 The ten members are: Abdallah Shaker, Mohamed Hassan, Abu Ishaq El Howeiny, Mohamed Hussein Yacoub, Saeed Abdel Azeem, Mostafa El Adawey, Gamal El Marakby, Abu Bakr El Hanbali, Wahid Bali, and Gamal Abdel Rahman.
34 "Statement No. 27 of the Shura Council of the Ulama regarding the draft constitution issued by the constituent assembly", 10 November 2012.
35 “Ismail: Islamic Shari’a is a Red Line in the Constitution and we will not relinquish it”, Freedom and Justice Portal, 10 November 2012.
36 Mohamed Ebied, “Ahmed Abdel Moneim: Attacks on the Constituent Assembly will not benefit”, Ikhwanonline, 11 November 2012.
37 Mohamed Ezz, “Borhamy opens fire on Liberals and Seculars from Gharbia and threatens those who are against God’s law with countless million men, and demands from Morsi to keep his promise and implement Shari’a and asserts Mousa was bargaining with me over Article Two”, Youm7, 17 November 2012.
38 Abdel Moneim El Shahat, “The Church and the Constituent”, Salaf Voice, 19 November 2012.
39 Fady Salah, “The 85 People deciding the fate of Egypt”, Daily News Egypt, 4 December 2012.
40 Mohamed Kamel, “Confirming El Watan’s breaking story: Salafi Sources: El Shater promised us good representation in the government and governors”, El Watan, 1 December 2012.
41 “Freedom and Justice Party Program”, (p. 64).
42 Samuel Tadros, “Egypt’s Draft Constitution: Religious Freedom Undermined”, NRO, 5 December 2012.
43 “Constitution and Hesbah: A question and answer”, Ana Salafy, 7 December 2012.
44 “Freedom and Justice Party Program”, (p. 14).
45 “The Constitution and Human Rights: A question and answer”, Ana Salafy, 7 December 2012.
46 Sara Labib, “Constitutional Highway to Theocracy”, Open Democracy, 13 December 2012.
47 Yasser Borhamy, “The Constituent and the identity struggle”, Salaf Voice, 1 December 2012.
49 Building and Development Party, "Yes to the Constitution, why?"
50 For examples of Brotherhood highlighting support from Islamists: from Tarek El Zomor; from Mohamed Hassan; from Tarek El Zomor and Nader Bakar; and from Gama’a Islamiya
51 “Statement by the Muslim Brotherhood: The Egyptian people protect legitimacy and choose their constitution”, Ikhwanonline, 5 December 2012.
53 For examples: Sheikh Ahmed Ashoush, “Clarification on Answering Salafis and the Brotherhood”, 7 December 2012.; Ahmed Gaballah, “Notes on the new Constitution”, 4 December 2012.
54 “Misconceptions about the draft constitution”, Salaf Voice, 4 December 2012.
View PDF

Related Articles

Libya’s Islamists: A Fragmented Landscape

Alison Pargeter

Post-Qadhafi Libya has been defined by chaos, division and disintegration. With the once-strong center in tatters, the country has fragmented into an ...

Continue Reading

Al-Qaeda After the Arab Spring: A Decade of Expansion, Losses, and Evolution

Katherine Zimmerman

Ten years ago, when popular uprisings and regime change ricocheted through the Arab world, many in the West wrote off al-Qaeda as irrelevant. What the...

Continue Reading

Islam Without Supremacism: A Conversation with Maria Khan

Aparna Pande & Maria Khan

Dr. Maria Khan is affiliated with the Center for Peace and Spirituality (CPS) International, which was founded by her grandfather and well-known Musli...

Continue Reading