There is lots of confusion in Egypt among the public, as well as the newly developed political parties, mainly because of the compound relationship between democracy, moral values, and religion, and how they shape their future political system.

Egypt, with its Muslim and Coptic population, is a religious conservative society, which is calling for protection against the erosion of religion under any political system. Egyptians are debating on the new constitution and how it would define the religious identity of the country.

There are some Muslims who believe that Islam does not include the current form of democracy that exists in the western civilizations. There is no contradiction between democracy and Islamic teachings; and the confusion is attributed to the considerable lack of understanding of democratic principles and insufficient understanding of Islamic teachings.

In the last two decades, Egyptian society has shown exceptional increase in the conservatism associated with an equal or greater decline in the moral values in the society. The logic dictates that the moral values always derive from the religious teachings in a conservative society, and, hence, increasing religious conservatism should be accompanied by strong moral values, which was not the case in Egypt.

In the meantime, many Egyptians believe that democracy would risk eroding their culture and conservative values, while acknowledging the already declining moral values without understanding the real reasons behind that decline.  Islamic conservative groups are capitalizing on those fears and trying to lay doubts over all non-conservative and liberal groups as anti-religion or at least calling for adopting secular principals (E’LMANIA) similar to those of the Turkish system, which will wipe out the moral values of the society. It is important to understand the reasons behind this confusion to find innovative solutions that help Egypt during its transformation to democracy.

The majority of Muslims in Egypt have failed to draw the correlation between the Islamic teachings and democratic system, which is the main cause behind the existing confusion. If the core pillar of democracy is the separation between the three branches of the government—Executive, Legislative, and Judicial—then Islam would be the biggest democratic system ever existed.

During the early days of the religion, the judicial system in Islam was autonomous and strong, and that was evident by the indictments of rulers and their families during the Islamic dynasty.  Justice during Islamic dynasty was the main pillar of the country and it did not differentiate between people based on social status, religion, color or ethnic background. The ruler and his cabinet during the Islamic dynasty did represent the executive branch, and they were mandated by applying laws that were mostly legislated from the Quran and Sunnah (teachings of the prophet), called the Islamic Legislative (Shari’a) Laws. The Shurah’ committee (a counseling committee of religious scholars) was mandated for  a legislative process called in Arabic Ijtihad, which means issuing legislative rulings regarding matters that were not clearly mentioned in the Shari’a. The Shurah committee is the equivalent of the current legislative branch under the modern democratic systems. There was complete separation between these branches during the Islamic dynasty, as defined under the modern understanding of democracy.

Additionally, democracy empowers the public to govern themselves and hold the ruler accountable for the state of the union. Islam also empowered the public the same way. That was evident in the speech by Khalifa Omar Ibn El Khatab, 644 a.c., when he was giving one of his Friday sermons and asked the people to correct him if he done something wrong. The people responded “o’ Omar we would correct you by the tips of our swords if necessary”. He responded back saying “thanks God that Omar is living in a time where people would monitor him and correct him if he has done something wrong”. This event was mentioned several times by Muslim scholars as evidence of the moral behavior and justice of the Khalifa Omar and how much he was careful to serve his Ummah (nation).

However, the story is also evident of the righteousness of the public and courage to challenge the most powerful ruler known in the Islamic dynasty. This is strongly correlated to the democratic system, which empowers the people to hold their rulers accountable and change them in a peaceful ways through the election process. Therefore, it is obvious that Islam stated the democratic principals 1,432 years ago.

The majority of Muslims who lived abroad for extended times were more successful in drawing the correlations between democracy and Islamic teachings due to their better understanding of the western culture. Many of the Egyptian expatriates discovered that the majority of western countries apply the teachings of Islam even though Muslims represent a very small fraction of the population, which enabled them to build the strongest nations on earth in modern history. The great Islamic scholar of the 19th century, Muhammad Abdo wrote, after his return from France in 1888, that “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam”. Most of the core values of western countries, such as freedom, human rights, and justice, are universal and does not conflict with Islam or any religion, even yet they are important constituents of Islamic teachings.

The questions remain; what did go wrong? Is it the lack of understanding of the religion? Is it the way Muslim scholars preach for the religion? Is it the way parents teach the religion to their kids? Is it the lack of self-motivation and reading of Islamic source books? Or it is just the fault of people who insist on separating the religious and moral values. Is it the severe lack of understanding of democratic principles? I personally believe it is all the above to various degrees. Combating corruption and extremism are prerequisites for democratic transformation. Therefore, it is important to understand the reasons behind these phenomena to find solutions and expedite the democratic changes.

Declining moral values while increasing conservatism in Egypt mostly originated from the incomplete means of preaching the religion that traditionally focus on the ceremonial parts without much discussion of the impact of its doctrine on social and community development. All Muslim scholars agree that Islamic teachings should lead to a very peaceful, productive, and successful society.  When people develop their faith based only on fear of hellfire (Johannam) or love for paradise (Jannah), they rely only on the ceremonial parts of the religion, grow selfish, and do not connect with one another. The majority of preachers quote the Quran (Muslim Wholly Book) and Hadith (The Prophet teachings) as the religion doctrine and barely touch on the impact of these administrative commands on the society development.

Despite increasing conservatism, Egyptians have had many interpretations for the declining moral values; some are related to spreading of poverty among larger number of citizens (40% live under poverty), some are related to the lack of proper education, and some are related to changing cultural behaviors due to the impact of western civilizations. For instance, the wide spread of corruption due to bribes in the governmental sectors was attributed to economic difficulties and low wages of the government employees. A high percentage of illiteracy among citizens (close to 29%) and increasing unemployment was also behind the declining moral behavior.  Youth have a hard time maintaining a strong code of moral values when they do not have any hope of finding jobs and start their own families, while living in a conservative society that does not allow premarital relationships.

Cultural changes and its impact on declining moral values was evident everywhere; for example, some considered that hypocrisy is an acceptable part of the constantly modified culture. Hypocrisy could be easily detected at almost every store when the seller compliment a customer by saying “you do not need to pay for the merchandize”, yet expects payment.  Arabic is a very rich language full of many words that could be used to express what people mean, yet made up words and traditions  became part of the culture. Additionally, some of the top 1% of the wealthy families imported parts of the western practices ranging from night clubs to devil worshipers, which made conservative Egyptians to see them as part of the core values of a liberal democratic society. Muslim extremists used these practices in their scare tactic that is commonly used to warn against civil and liberal political system.

These aforementioned examples were used just to explain how the people excuse the declining moral values despite the increasing religious conservatism.  However, these are weak excuses that do not stand on any truth, especially when pointing out that even under weaker economic and education systems in the last century, the moral values were much stronger in the Egyptian society. Additionally, in early 1900, conservatism was not widespread, yet moral values were much stronger, as been reported by historians.

There are many risks associated with reducing the religion teachings to the ceremonial parts without deep understanding of the impact of religion on community development. People with such an incomplete understanding of the religion are subject to drifting into far left or right sides of the religion. For instance, many students and visitors from the Muslim majority countries who are visiting the U.S. or  any western country, would end up with either one of the following extreme situations: a) becoming drawn to the far left and forgetting all about their religion teachings, despite their conservative background, and engaging in severe form of liberal practices (such as alcohols, dating, drugs, etc), or b) becoming shut off from their new surroundings and associating only with their peers in a complete rejection of the new culture, and becoming more extreme in their beliefs. Hence, they fail to understand that the moral values and strength exists in the new culture because they only focus on the negative practices that contradict their beliefs.