Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 September - 3 October 2012
Issue No. 1116
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Defending freedoms

Intellectuals, journalists, artists and human rights activists denounce the new draft constitution as regressive, reports Khaled Dawoud

As discussions over drafting a new constitution seemed to be drawing to a close proposed articles relating to freedom of expression, creativity and belief have been sharply attacked by intellectuals, journalists and artists.

At a news conference at the Press Syndicate on Monday the newly formed National Committee in Defence of Freedom of Expression (NCDFE) circulated a sharply worded statement accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of seeking to draft a constitution that will create a "religious state".

The committee, which includes leading novelists, journalists, artists, political figures and members of NGOs, was particularly critical of articles that would allow the closure of newspapers by a court order and the imprisonment of journalists, and which maintain heavy state control of the so-called national newspapers. Other articles relating to freedom of belief, creativity and women's rights have been removed, watered down or conditioned by Sharia law.

The 100-member Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the country's first constitution after the 25 January Revolution is dominated by Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour Party. The assembly's members were selected by the now dissolved People's Assembly. Several liberal, leftist and secular figures decided to boycott the assembly because of its clear Islamist bias.

A prominent liberal member of the Constituent Assembly who decided to stay on in the hope of reaching an agreement with the Islamists told Al-Ahram Weekly that he, along with a number of others, was seriously considering opting out "because we now feel it's a hopeless cause". Speaking on condition of anonymity, he added: "We are now facing a serious crisis. If we did not mobilise opposition to these articles we will end up with the worst constitution in our history."

While non-Islamist and liberal members, led former presidential hopeful and Arab League chief Amr Moussa, had argued that drafts should be finalised by consensus, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis insisted on a simple majority.

This is the second Constituent Assembly since the 25 January Revolution. The first was dissolved by court order on the grounds that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis had used their majority in the People's Assembly to appoint their own MPs as members. The Brotherhood subsequently agreed to appoint fewer MPs, and upped the majority to approve articles to 57 of the assembly's 100 members rather than 50+1. The supposed compromise, however, was rendered meaningless given that the Islamists ensured they continued to hold more than 57 seats on the assembly.

In addition to differences over articles relating to freedom of expression, bitter arguments have raged over the status of sharia, the role of Al-Azhar in explaining religious laws and equal rights for women.

In Monday's Press Syndicate press conference NCDFE head novelist Bahaa Taher warned that the "dominant political group on the Constituent Assembly [the Brotherhood] opposes public freedoms and the basic rights which Egyptians gained after making great sacrifices throughout our modern history".

Journalist Yehia Kallash, the NCDEF's spokesman, said draft articles on the media were "a retreat from positions achieved after years of struggle under Mubarak".

Kallash pointed that in 2006 president Hosni Mubarak greed to amend legislation to ban the closure of newspapers and other publications on the grounds that "closing down a newspaper by court order amounted to collective punishment of all the publications employees and not just the journalist or editor involved in propagating a specific libel". Yet in the new constitution "freedom of the press, print, publication and all other media is guaranteed, and censorship on their products is prohibited␦ they cannot be warned, suspended or closed down in the absence of a court order."

Journalist Salah Eissa has written extensively on the history of the press. He is particularly concerned with another "dangerous proposed article" that allows the imprisonment of journalists.

"We proposed an article that stated clearly there should be no custodial sentences for publication-related offences. But in the last reading we found that imprisonment would apply 'for violations related to harming the reputation of persons, libel and slander or calling for violence and discrimination'. Instead of abolishing custodial sentences altogether, something we battled for for years, sending journalists to prison is to be enshrined in the constitution."

Eissa said that Islamist members of the assembly had argued sparing journalists from prison would mount to discrimination in their favour.

"We told them we wanted to ban imprisonment for publication offences for all citizens, not just journalists. People should not go to prison for expressing their views."

The response?

"They told us they could not accept freedom of publication as a principle, citing the possibility that someone might publish a pornographic magazine. When we said that there were many other laws in the penal code to prevent this happening they refused to change their position."

Press Syndicate board member Gamal Fahmi also questions the article creating a national authority for press and media to "administer and develop press and media establishments owned by the state".

The Muslim Brotherhood, said Fahmi, is "simply reassigning the role now performed by the Shura Council to a new body while remaining determined to ensure the national media serves their agenda and can be used as a propaganda tool".

"Many people thought the Brotherhood would privatise state media establishments. Now it is obvious it is determined to continue Mubarak-era policies and exert its own control over state media."

Constituent Assembly spokesman Wahid Abdel-Meguid pointed out that the Islamist majority had insisted on removing an article that stated "freedom of scientific research and literary, artistic and cultural creativity is the right of every citizen". They claimed, said Abdel-Wahid, that similar language existed in other parts of the constitution "though what they are clearly fighting for is the removal of any reference to freedom of creativity and belief as a right".

Abdel-Meguid also highlighted the article granting Egyptians the right to worship freely but restricting that right to followers of the three revealed religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and the article according women equal rights to be "as long as this does not contradict Sharia, a formula that will guarantee endless arguments on how to interpret Islamic law".

On Monday Manal Al-Tibi, one of the staunchest advocates of women's and human rights on the Constituent Assembly, announced that she was resigning.

"I have reached the conclusion that the new constitution will never meet the aspirations of the majority of Egyptians," she said. "It is very clear that the constitution is being drafted to serve the interests of people keen on creating a religious state and maintaining power."

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