Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2012
Issue No. 1117
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A weight of contradiction

The Constituent Assembly attracts more hostile press as internal divisions dog its performance, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

Criticism of the Constituent Assembly tasked with writing Egypt's new constitution continues apace. It has been accused of betraying the democratic ideals of the revolution and drafting a constitution that turns Egypt into a religious state, with the assembly's chairman Hossam Al-Ghiriani singled out for particular opprobrium.

According to Al-Ghiriani, the Constituent Assembly is "facing opposition on two fronts: the first from the independent press and television channels; the second from within the assembly's ranks".

The hostile press campaign erupted after the assembly's spokesman Wahid Abdel-Maguid warned that Islamist members had insisted on custodial sentences for journalists convicted of libel. Abdel-Maguid added that "they are also adamant that press organisations whose journalists are found guilty of libel could be closed down."

The campaign escalated following the resignation from the assembly of human rights activist Manal Al-Tibi who protested that "the constitution being drafted will not only reproduce the excesses of the pre-revolution regime but put Egypt on the road to becoming an Islamist state espousing reactionary religious ideals."

Al-Tibi denounced several articles as infringing international conventions of human rights, especially those dealing with women and children.

Al-Tibi's resignation unleashed a wave of controversy. Hamdeen Sabahi, the former presidential candidate who now heads the Popular Current, and Mohamed Al-Baradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and leader of the Constitution Party, described the draft constitution as a disaster. In a strongly-worded statement Sabahi and Al-Baradei said "the current Constituent Assembly has failed to address the concerns of Egyptian citizens on basic freedoms and economic and social rights."

The statement accused President Mohamed Mursi of backtracking on his promise to form a balanced Constituent Assembly representative of all Egyptians.

During his visit last week to the US Mursi said he would not intervene to create a new Constituent Assembly and commended the existing assembly on its good work.

Sabahi and Al-Baradei concluded their statement by appealing to secular members to withdraw from the assembly so as to "expose its weaknesses to the Egyptian people".

Ayman Nour and former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa have refused to heed the boycott call, saying they will resign only if the draft undermines "the democratic ideals of the Egyptian people".

"We would withdraw if we found that members insisted on mixing religion with politics," said Nour.

Moussa requested that an exceptional session be held to review the chapter on freedoms and rights after mounting criticism that its articles reflect radical Wahabi Islamist principles that infringe on the rights of women and of the press. Moussa said the assembly is currently witnessing "a conflict between Islamists, who form the majority, and secularists who are in the minority but whose arguments are logical and convincing".

Four members of the assembly who have boycotted meetings since June suddenly opted to rejoin. Cairo University professor of constitutional law Gaber Nassar; general coordinator of the Kifaya movement Abdel-Gelil Mustafa, head of the National Council for Woman's Economic Committee Soad Rizk and presidential adviser Samir Morcos agreed, in the words of Mustafa, "to take on our role in the assembly because we cannot let reactionary forces have the upper hand in drawing Egypt's new national charter".

Al-Ghiriani indicated that in its meeting next week the assembly will expel members who continue to boycott its meetings.

We will struggle till the end to ensure the new constitution affirms the Islamic character of Egypt," said Younis Makhioun, a member of the Nour Party. "We will stand up to secularists who refuse Egypt's Islamic character."

The Salafis want the new constitution to criminalise blasphemy, oblige citizens to donate alms (zakat) and withdraw Egypt from international treaties setting a minimum age for girls to marry.

Muslim Brotherhood members have been pressing for journalists convicted of slander to be imprisoned.

"We cannot tell citizens that journalists are above the law and that they do not go to jail," argues leading Brotherhood official Farid Ismail. "We are, though, against closing down press organisations in the case of just one journalist being convicted of libel."

Some observers expect the assembly to implode.

Anwar Al-Sadat, chairman of the Reform and Development Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly that "it is not only a question of ideological conflict between secularists and Islamists, but also of bitter differences between the members of the assembly's five committees and the drafting committee."

"The drafting committee has changed several articles approved by the chapter committees and even removed some articles entirely," says Al-Sadat.

Mohamed Khalifa, a judge, complains that the drafting committee altered the majority of articles regulating the work of the judiciary. The interference has led many judges to demand Al-Ghiriani be sacked "because his views are in line with those of the Islamists who do not favour judicial independence".

Al-Sadat told the Weekly that "instead of seeking common ground members of the assembly have preferred to launch their assault on private newspapers and television channels".

Al-Ghiriani told a group of European Union ambassadors this week that he expects that the assembly complete its job by November.

On Tuesday, more than 700 members of the Administrative Prosecution and the State Cases Authority protested in front of Shura Council building demanding Al-Ghiriani's resignation. They accused Al-Ghiriani of systematically opposing judicial independence. On the same day human rights activists and journalists issued a statement accusing the Muslim Brotherhood of hijacking the Constituent Assembly.

Al-Sadat predicts that "the assembly will not be able to finalise a draft constitution within the next couple of months."

"The Salafis should recognise that most of their views are reactionary and reflect a radical Wahabi Islam that goes against Egypt's centrist ideology and moderate Islam, while Muslim Brotherhood MPs are clearly against press freedoms and equal rights for women," he says, arguing that such entrenched positions can only result in deadlock.

A ruling is expected to invalidate the Constituent Assembly next Tuesday. More than 40 lawyers have petitioned the Administrative Court to dissolve the assembly because of its unrepresentative nature.

"If dissolved by the court," says Al-Sadat, "Mursi will have a golden opportunity to reformulate the assembly and make it balanced. But should he opt to keep it as it is, which under the 12 August Constitutional Declaration he can, it will be obvious that he is still working for the Muslim Brotherhood rather than the nation."

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