The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

What does religion have to do with voting in Egypt?

Dalia Malek send this dispatch from London on the experience of registering to, one day, be able to vote in Egypt's elections.

After months of protests at Egyptian embassies around the world, SCAF announced that Egyptians abroad would have the right to vote. However, at least in the United Kingdom this has been more challenging than it would seem.

A delegation went to the Egyptian consulate in London between 18 and 22 November to issue Egyptian IDs, while online registration for voting closed on 19 November. This overlap of dates appears intentional, but in fact, no one with an Egyptian ID issued after 27 September 2011 could register to vote.

Egyptian IDs and the “new” versions of the Egyptian birth certificates and passports have a serial number (raqam qawmi) that is identified with a citizen’s records, and this is not present on the “old” birth certificate or the “old” passport. Religion is also not written on the passport. Although both of my parents are Egyptian and I have had the old version of the Egyptian birth certificate since I was born, and the old passport since 2007 (valid until 2014), I have chosen not to request an Egyptian ID until now because of the privacy issues.

While it may not be immediately apparent for those who have habitually had their religion written on official government documents like the Egyptian ID for most of their lives, voting for Egyptians is inherently the laying down of the right to privacy. For those who practice or identify with religions other than the three recognized religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism —- or no religion, it is also the laying down of the right to freedom of religion.

An Egyptian passport and/or birth certificate is not considered enough proof of citizenship to vote: and an Egyptian ID is required. Dual-national Egyptians like me who are asking an ID for the first time will have to prioritize their rights before deciding whether to keep religion out of public government documents or to vote in the upcoming elections. While I have the option to make a nuisance of myself regarding my opposition of this practice at the consulate or the Mogamma because I have dual citizenship to fall back on, for those who do not have that option this is also an issue of citizenship rights. Religious minorities like Baha’is have been embroiled in lawsuits over the issue of religion on the Egyptian ID for years, while others have simply said they are Muslim to save themselves the trouble. While many Egyptians do not see the harm in having what is normally an aspect of their public lives written on government-issued documents, for these reasons it is still a form of repression.

When I went to the consulate in London to issue an ID, I said that I did not want a religion stated on my ID. I was shuffled between three or four members of staff who wanted to know my reasons for not wanting to declare a religion on the application form. One asked plainly, “Are you Baha’i?” I was also told that if I wanted to convert, I needed to provide documentary evidence from the mosque, church or synagogue in which I had converted. It seemed that the ideas of renunciation of religion and the concept of privacy, or simply declining to state a religion, were being conflated conceptually.

Since I had already paid a non-refundable fee of £55 for the application form, I submitted it with a vertical line through the field that asked for a religion. Interestingly, on the old birth certificate, it does not say what religion I am, but rather the religion of both of my parents. It is implied that the religion is inherited from the parents, and at some point, their religion has been attached to my own records. Just before visiting Egypt in October, I had someone issue a new version of the birth certificate for me and sure enough, on a separate line it says that I belong to the religion of my parents, in addition to stating their religion. Just to be sure, when I tried entering the raqam qawmi on the new birth certificate into the online voter registration form, it gave an error message that said that my information was not in the system.

I was told at the consulate in London that even if I were to strike through the “religion” field on the application form, or even write a different religion than that of my parents, when it reached Cairo for processing, my ID would still have the religion of my parents on it. Changing religions is a separate process that needs to be done before issuing an ID, and declining to state one at all is not an option. At the consulate I was told that if I wanted to do this, I would have to make a case before a court in Egypt. It was also suggested to me to put down the name of a contact in Egypt to chase after my application before it is processed to see what will happen with the religion category on the ID. Although I was given a lot of conflicting information from different staff members, I was also told that processing should take a month.

The voting process for those who successfully registered has also been confusing. Deadlines have been extended with little notice, and sometimes this has been announced by emails that only a few people have received. For example in the US, the Elections Committee in Egypt sent a circular to consulates announcing an extension of the deadline to have votes mailed to Washington, D.C. In Texas, for a deadline of 25 November, the consulate did not receive this circular until Friday 25 November at 17:30, and the consulate distributed the email at 19:25 that day.