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Egypt's Need for a "Bill of Rights"

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As the shadow of the Egyptian revolution that succeeded in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's 30 years reign has generated an explosion of new political parties and activists movements representing all colors of the political spectrum, debates within Egyptian political landscape are not anything but chaotic and inflammatory.

And as fear about Christians rights are being questioned with the attacks on two churches that left 12 people (Muslims and Christians) dead and more than 180 wounded in clashes on Saturday, Egypt needs first and foremost a "Bill of Rights."

I spent two weeks in Cairo last month witnessing serious and heated debates over Egypt's political future, and Egypt's cultural identities. While democracy, free elections, and electoral processes are among major subject of these debates, a serious talk about basic rights and liberty for all Egyptians is still missing.

The Egyptian revolution did not need an ideological framework or guidance. Therefore, the serious debate over the makeup of the future Egyptian constitution, specifically with regards to the role of Islam and the meaning of citizenship, caused fractures and concern between Egypt's minority and majority at the same time.

Minorities fear that the new constitution will fail to address and protect their basic human rights. The Christian minority fears their basic religious freedoms will not be upheld, such as freedom to worship and freedom to build churches, while the liberal minority (Muslims and Christians alike) are anxious about potential restrictions on personal liberties with regard to freedom of speech, diet, dress and woman's rights.

As Egypt experiences a rapid and complicated transition from the Mubarak regime to the formation of a new government, the ultimate goal must remain the protection of equal rights for all citizens of Egypt. Ultimately, the establishment of a secure bill of rights must be a top priority. It must be adopted before the election of a new parliament scheduled in September, and before writing the new constitution afterward.

The inability to establish a bill of rights before the parliamentary elections in September increases the risk that the victorious party, now and in the future, disregard civil liberties as they wish. This has been too often the case in countries throughout the region through history. Notably, in 1979, Iran's newly formed Islamic government promised a free, open society based on the newly formed constitution. The Iranian regime also established a four year electoral system similar to the United States. However, to date, Iran has failed to maintain these principles, and remains an oppressive, undemocratic regime, with no regard for basic human rights. During the 1950's and 1960's, numerous Arab States executed successful revolutions that ended European colonial control, and established national independent states. However, they failed to guarantee basic human rights, leading to contemporary authoritatarian regimes.

The paramount importance of a pre-established bill of rights can be observed through the American experience. During the American Revolution (1775-1783), the United States formed a constitution that became a model for future governments. However, in the years that followed, the American people believed that the constitution failed to ensure freedom from the state, and did not meet basic human rights demands. With the eventual formation of a bill of rights, which outlined various guaranteed freedoms, such as freedom of the press, religion, and right to trial, a continuous push for civil equality was brought forth, and increased civil liberties for all citizens. By this model, it is clear that it would behoove the Egyptian government to enact such a code, to avoid yet another unhappy society.

Arab study of the establishing of the United States' history has focused mainly on America's political leaders, especially its first president, George Washington. Unfortunately, America's founding ideals, especially its perception of human rights, has been highly ignored. On the other hand, nations throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Europe have focused on America's founding principles, especially the notion that freedom ensures equality for all citizens, an idea adopted from America's third president, Thomas Jefferson. Egypt, like the many countries around the world, should expand its study of the American experience, and adopt these principles as well.

While elections are undoubtedly a foundational element of democracy and progress of a society, it cannot and should not be mistaken to be the only driving force of a stable nation. Basic human rights must be maintained first and foremost. Hiding behind the veil of "democracy" and "elections" is not sufficient, for it leads to the marginalization of the disenfranchised at the hands of the powerful elite. While this was a great achievement in American history, the real achievement that is the foundational principle of American society today, is the strict Bill of Rights, which ensures every American's basic human rights, no matter which political party holds the majority.

In moving forward with the state-building process, Egyptians should not be shy about borrowing from the American experience that set the U.S. in the right path to liberty and equality for all.

Mohamed Elmenshawy (mensh70@gmail.com) is the director of the languages and regional studies program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. He writes a weekly article for the Egyptian daily Ashorouk.