Egypt Achieves Nationality Law Reform But Gaps Remain
The Boston University International Human Rights Clinic is currently in the fourth year of a project mapping the issues of statelessness throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) by engaging in country-by-country in-depth studies. As discussed in a recent blogpost, in 2020–2021 we focused on Egypt. Unlike Lebanon, Jordan, and many other MENA countries, which don’t permit nationality to be passed through mothers, Egypt has reformed nationality laws to extend the right to citizenship to children born to Egyptian mothers. This progressive change is hoped to shrink the population of stateless children born to foreign fathers and Egyptian mothers, which in 2005 was estimated at between 400,000 and one million.
Although Egypt’s reforms have alleviated (or may alleviate) statelessness for thousands of individuals, significant gaps remain in implementing the reform on the level of civil registration. In our research, we identified how particular gaps in law and implementation affect refugees and irregular migrants but also other populations at risk, in particular, undocumented Egyptian nationals. This blogpost highlights two of the at-risk groups, children born to unwed mothers, and children born to persons from unrecognized religions. These children are entitled to Egyptian nationality but, because of lapses in civil registration, struggle to gain access to it.
Egypt’s Nationality Law and Civil Registration
The law conferring Egyptian mothers and fathers the right to transfer their nationality is clear and unequivocal. Whereas previously mothers’ rights to give Egyptian nationality to their children was limited in most cases, in 2004, an amendment to Article 2 of Law №26 of 1975 (Law №154) allowed nationality transfer from either parent at birth. Moreover, the 2014 Egyptian Constitution, in Article 6, elevated this reform to a constitutional right.
Still, the administrative requirements and practices for registering a child with the Egyptian government leave significant barriers to acquiring citizenship. A review of the birth registration procedures, including the marriage certificate requirement, makes this abundantly clear. Under article 15 of Egypt’s Law №12 of 1996, persons falling in one of four categories may report a birth: the father; the mother, provided that her marriage is properly documented; the directors of hospitals and other facilities where births occur; or the Umda or sheikh. Since a 2008 amendment, the mother of a newborn has the right to report the birth of the child, register the child, and request a birth certificate in which her name is recorded, though the law specifies that such certificate could serve as “proof of the birth and for no other purposes.”
Egyptian law requires a valid and legally certified marriage or divorce certificate to register a child. Only institutions of the religions the Egyptian state recognizes — Islam, Christianity, and Judaism — can issue marriage certificates valid for civil registration. Civil marriage is not available to Egyptian nationals. In addition to the marriage certificate, other documents may be required: a birth notification from a medical facility (or a report to the health office if delivery occurred at home); for refugees or migrants, a UNHCR registration card or valid passports of both parents; a death certificate if the father is deceased.
In early 2021, at a workshop held with the American University in Cairo’s Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, we heard about what happens when at-risk populations in Egypt enter a civil registry office. Participants noted that the presumption of a marriage certificate requirement is a significant barrier to registering a child and, therefore, accessing citizenship for many, including children born out of wedlock, children born in customary marriages, children born of rape, refugees and migrants lacking valid marriage documentation, and persons who are from religions unrecognized by the Egyptian state. Below is what we learned about unwed mothers and Baha’i parents in Egypt.
The workshop complicated our ideas about whether unwed mothers can register a child’s birth. While the law exempts such mothers of the marriage certificate requirement, in practice, administrative barriers and social norms inhibit unmarried mothers from even attempting to register a child. One source has reported that government officials, including civil registry employees, are often unaware that Egyptian law permits unmarried mothers to register their children. Another lawyer indicated that registration of a non-marital birth does not occur in Egypt due to social stigma, except in cases of rape. Registering a child born of rape, though difficult and needing the assistance of an attorney, is possible, if the mother provides a police report of the rape. But multiple contributors noted that success in such cases varies widely and depends on the discretion of different officials.
Even for mothers who are married, registering the birth of the child is more of a hurdle than it would be for the father. While the father can always register the birth of a child (and is considered the primary informant, which is itself discriminatory), the law provides that the mother may do so only if she provides proof of marriage and a signed attestation that the child is born of the marriage. Officials in the Civil Registry have been known to turn even those with the required documents away, demanding further evidence. This leaves the essential act of birth registration at the discretion of whoever happens to be working that day.
Such combination of legal and administrative barriers along with social stigma undermines a mother’s right to pass her nationality onto her child (and the child’s right to a nationality). Without a birth certificate, a child is unable to access any national identification, leaving the child at risk of statelessness and unable to access social entitlements.
The Baha’i, a longstanding religious community in Egypt are estimated to number between 1,500 to 7,000. The Egyptian nationality of some Baha’i is undocumented, and they face obstacles in obtaining IDs as well as marriage and death certificates, since their religion is not recognized. As noted, religion is required information on Egyptian identification documents and only religious marriages are valid. In assigning or recording religion on identification documents, the Government only recognizes Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, termed the Abrahamic religions.
After numerous court battles, a 2008 court ruling permitted Baha’i to leave the religion space blank on identification documents rather than mis-identify themselves as Muslim or Christian. Thereafter, Egypt’s Interior Ministry acknowledged the right of adherents of “non-recognized” religions to obtain necessary identification and access to basic services. Thanks to the ruling, Baha’i secured the right to obtain an identification card; however, Baha’i personal (religious) status and marriage continue to not be recognized by the state.
One interviewee noted that while Baha’i have largely been able to access documentation, the governing laws, regulations, and legacy of state practices mean that documentation of Baha’i citizenship is conferred on a case-by-case basis. Some Baha’i, in practice, fall between being partially documented to completely undocumented. Among the former, the main issues concern the veracity of the information in their IDs. Indeed, it is important to note that the 2008 decision covers only Baha’i previously designated as ‘Baha’i’ or as ‘other,’ but does not address those previously documented as ‘Christian’ or ‘Muslim,’ based on the recorded religion of documented relatives who were Christian or Muslim.
Access to marriage certificates is also an issue for the Baha’i. Since the Baha’i faith is not recognized by the government, a Baha’i marriage ceremony certificate is considered invalid. As a result, it may be difficult or impossible to register the birth of a child of Baha’i parents. Indeed, some Baha’i children are registered as having a single parent, even though their mother and father are married in the Baha’i faith, which leads to issues in proving lineage and receiving inheritance.
Baha’is’ ability to access IDs and other documents (and ensuing entitlements) can depend on other factors, including where a Baha’i lives within Egypt (urban vs. rural) and their social standing. Baha’i with even limited documentation tend to fare much better than those without any documentation, since documentation can impact access to social entitlements and benefits, like education, health insurance and employment.
Egypt has made strides in guaranteeing that nationality can be passed down from either the mother or the father of a child. Where Egypt falls short is in its legal documentation requirements and administrative implementation. This situation can improve by uniform implementation of the laws already in place. Further, some have noted that foregoing the marriage certificate requirement for purposes of securing a birth certificate would help prevent statelessness by ensuring fewer children entitled to citizenship fall between the cracks.