Islamists vs secularists on constitution
The assembly charged with writing Egypt's new constitution has been the scene of stormy debates over articles dealing with religious issues, writes Gamal Essam El-Din
Religious issues have again figured prominently on the agenda of the constituent assembly tasked with drafting Egypt's new constitution, and the rift between Islamist and secularist members of the assembly has widened to include further articles from the draft constitution, including ones regulating the future relationship between religion and the state.
According to Abul-Ela Madi, a member of the assembly and chair of the moderate Islamist party Wasat, four critical issues have triggered fierce debates and delayed the drafting of the new constitution's chapter on the "basic components of the state".
In Madi's words, "these issues deal with Islamic Sharia law, the crime of blasphemy, the role of the Sunni Islam institution of Al-Azhar, and the setting up of a zakat [alms-giving] institution."
The four issues have widened the existing gulf between the Islamists and the secularists on the assembly, rubbing salt into the wounds of the differences between the two camps on the controversial issue of freedoms and rights.
Madi explained that "in case a deadlock is reached over the wording of the four issues, the matter will be left to the 100-member assembly to decide, which could adopt the view of the Islamists or the secularists or could try to reach common ground between the two by embracing a third wording of the relevant chapters."
Most of the Islamists who are pressing for radical positions are members of the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party. Eissa Makhyoun, a member of the party, said "the Sharia is a matter of life and death for us because Egypt is a pivotal Muslim country whose laws should be governed by Islam and the Quran."
The Salafis want Article 2 of the constitution to read that "Islamic Sharia -- rather than the principles of Islamic Sharia -- is the major source of legislation in Egypt." According to Makhyoun, this would mean the introduction of so-called hodoud punishments, such as amputating the hands of thieves.
By contrast, the secularists want the text of the 1971 constitution to be kept in place, reading that "the principles of Islamic Sharia should be the main source of legislation in Egypt."
Closely related to this issue is the role of the Islamic Sunni religious institution of Al-Azhar. The Salafis want Al-Azhar, or its council of clerics, to be the main reference in all matters relating to Sharia law. By contrast, secularist members of the assembly reject this role for Al-Azhar.
According to Gamal Gibril, chair of the assembly's basic components committee and a constitutional law professor, "Sunni Islam throughout history has never adopted any religious institution as a major and compulsory reference on religious and Islamic Sharia issues."
"Al-Azhar should act as an advisory reference, because it is highly dangerous to entrust one institution with the absolute right of deciding on Islamic Sharia issues."
Joining forces with Gibril, Anwar El-Sadat, chair of the liberal-oriented Reform and Development Party, said "interpretation of Sharia issues should be left to a diversity of opinions rather than to one exclusive authority."
The critical issue of blasphemy has also deepened the rift between the Islamists and the secularists. Whereas the 1971 constitution does not mention the issue, the Salafis believe that "it has become a necessity at a time of dominant liberal values."
Makhyoun said that "the crime of blasphemy has become widespread in recent years on the grounds that freedom of speech and thought should have no limits." He added that "an article in the new constitution about blasphemy is important in order to stem the tide of publications expressing contempt for God and Islamic values."
In response, liberal members of the assembly such as Ayman Nour, chair of the Ghad Party, said that "an article about blasphemy in the new constitution could be arbitrarily used by radicals against freedom of speech and thought. Such a crime should be left to the judiciary and not dealt with in the constitution."
The Salafis also want to see an article in the new constitution about setting up an institution entrusted with collecting zakat (alms). Makhyoun said that "zakat, one of Islam's five pillars, has never been seriously applied by successive governments, but has been left to ordinary citizens to decide."
"We believe that zakat could be a major source of income to address social inequality."
While liberal members of the assembly do not necessarily argue with the proposal, they argue that a zakat institution should be regulated by law rather than stated in the constitution. "The constitution should be a charter of universal and national values rather than about purely religious issues," Nour said.
The assembly's basic components and system of government committee is still grappling with other controversial issues, the first being the status of military courts under the new constitution.
Chair of the assembly Hossam El-Ghiriani has strongly criticised proposals that military and civilian courts be grouped together under a single chapter of the new constitution, saying that "military courts have played a bad role in the history of this country, and I think it is not in the interests of Egyptians that they be grouped with civilian courts under one chapter."
El-Ghiriani's statement drew criticism from Major General Mamdouh Shahin, a member of the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), who accused El-Ghiriani of bias against the military courts.
"Please remember that these courts saved Egypt from falling prey to chaos after the 25 January Revolution," Shahin said, adding that "the judges of the military courts are highly qualified and could adopt the same guarantees and criteria of fairness as the civilian courts."
He added that "we apologise if some citizens were negatively affected by the rulings of these courts under the previous regime, but from now on we should adopt a new vision of these courts."
Joining forces with Shahin, Sobhi Saleh, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), said that "the inclusion of military and civilian courts in one chapter of the new constitution is a very progressive step because it closes the door to putting citizens on trial before military tribunals and places military courts under the purview of the Court of Cassation, the highest judicial authority in Egypt."
Gibril indicated that the committee had reached agreement on the role of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). "The SCC should be left under one chapter, and its board will include 11 judges to be elected by the judicial authorities rather than appointed by the president of the republic."
Gibril said that "the new constitution will strip the president of the republic of several other powers, among them his chairmanship of the Higher Police Council and his power to select its board."
These steps, Gibril said, would ensure that the Supreme Constitutional Court and the Higher Police Council remained independent and protected from possible manipulation by the president of the republic in the interests of one or other political party.
Delegates from the constituent assembly will visit several foreign countries next week, Gibril said, in order to explore the opinions of Egyptians living abroad on the draft constitution.
A delegation led by the FJP's senior official Mohamed El-Beltagui, chair of the assembly's proposals committee, will visit Saudi Arabia on 13 and 14 September. Another delegation will then visit the United States to meet with Egyptian expatriates there.