CAIRO — A new political party, the Egyptian Secular Party (ESP), has been proposed to challenge what the founders see as the dominance of religious institutions over the Egyptian state, and to call for the writing of a secular constitution.

The party's main principles include abolishing all articles related to the Islamic nature of the Egyptian state in the constitution, including Article Two, which stipulates that Islamic Sharia is the primary source of legislation. The party also proposes reform of the legal system to include civil marriage and a secular personal status law.

Undaunted by long odds, party founder Hisham Ouf says that the aim is to encourage the separation of religion from politics and the state. He explains that Egypt suffered from attempts to impose a theocratic state under the governance of the now-ousted Muslim Brotherhood.

"The Brotherhood was acting as if their people are God's chosen nation," Ouf says. "The conflict between the theocratic and secular state was settled ages ago in the civilized world. Religion is only inside the mosque and the church." 

He adds that the party calls for equality between all citizens, with no discrimination based on gender, religion, race or color.

Ouf and the founders are in the process of collecting the 5,000 endorsements required by the Parties Affairs Committee to officially register the party. He says now is the optimal time to establish such a political movement, making specific reference to what he perceives to be the growing role of Al-Azhar — a complex of Islamic schools, university facilities and research institutes — particularly since the army's 2013 removal of former President Mohamed Morsi.

Al-Azhar University — Photo: Facebook page

"We believe Al-Azhar should stay as a religious institution tasked with Fatwa, preaching and jurisdiction," Ouf says. "Azhar’s Shiekh Ahmed al-Tayeb should not enjoy the powers he has now. He has been intervening to ban books, TV shows and movies. Al-Azhar has become a state within the state."

Following pressure from Al-Azhar, the private channel Al-Qahera Wal Nas pulled its contentious show With Islam off the air. The show was presented by preacher Islam El-Beheiry, who reportedly disseminated religious views that run counter to the core beliefs propagated by Al-Azhar. The supreme religious institution filed a complaint against Beheiry and the channel.

Egypt's religious education

Ouf's new party calls for abolishing religious education and redirecting the financial support the country currently gives to Al-Azhar to reform secular education for all. For Ouf, the state sacrifices a lot to support Al-Azhar’s hegemony.

Ouf acknowledges that wider society may largely oppose these ideas, but he believes the party will challenge the use of the term "secular." He believes that Egyptians weren't properly introduced to secularism.

The party was put under the spotlight when Al-Watan daily newspaper published a report about the founders, labeling them "atheists." In the report, Al-Watan claimed it had accessed a secret Facebook group for the party's founder, on which the newspaper alleged there were calls for promoting atheism.

Talk show host Khairy Ramadan slammed the party on his daily show Momken, saying "it is not the right time" to call for a secular state.

Ouf says he and his colleagues do not want to engage in a religious tug of war, but they will not prevent atheists from joining the party.

"As a party, we do not differentiate between people based on their religion, as we view it as a personal bond with God that we should not be involved in," he says.

A countrywide campaign against atheists has intensified recently, prompting criticism from human rights groups. In January, activist Karim al-Banna was sentenced to three years for contempt of religion. Earlier, in March 2014, an Alexandrian-based police official vowed to arrest a group of atheists in the coastal city after they made a television appearance. In December 2014, authorities shut down a downtown café believed to be a hub for atheist gatherings.

This was preceded with a campaign by Al-Azhar and the Endowments Ministry to "save youth from atheism." During the campaign, an Al-Azhar survey concluded that there were 866 atheists in the country, a number that only represents those who were willing to self-identify as such.

Despite the obstacles, Ouf is hopeful they will be able to register the party. "The constitution bans religious political parties, yet there are religious political parties operating. Why would the committee then ban a secular political party, established in accordance with the constitution?"