Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Articles of faith

Consensus over the draft constitution is as far away as ever, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

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ON TUESDAY evening, a march set off from Shobra towards Maspero to mark a year since the massacre of pro-Coptic demonstrators there. Among the protesters' demands is retaliation for those killed in Maspero and the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly, which will be the main demand of a million-man march they proposed, to take place this Friday.

Protests are planned tomorrow against the draft constitution being finalised by the Constituent Assembly. Twenty political parties and movements have said they will take part in five marches that will begin in different areas of Cairo and Giza and converge on Tahrir Square at 4pm. There are also plans for marches in other governorates. The 12 October protests will take place under the slogan "A constitution for all Egyptians: social justice and national unity".

Mohamed Al-Beltagui, Muslim Brotherhood chairman of the Constituent Assembly's Proposals Committee, said on Tuesday that the draft of the constitution would be announced on Wednesday. No further details of the first reading of the draft constitution in a public session had emerged by the time Al-Ahram Weekly went to press.

"This draft will be a matter of public debate for weeks before a vote is taken on a final version," said Al-Beltagui. "Until then the public can make their opinions about the draft known."

"The assembly," Al-Beltagui continued, "will wrap up its work by 12 December, as stipulated by the 12 August Constitutional Declaration issued by President Mohamed Morsi."

The draft constitution has been subject to widespread criticism in the press and beyond. Legal petitions questioning the mandate of the Islamist-dominated assembly are ongoing, and the members of two judicial authorities, the Administrative Prosecution and the State Cases Authority, have announced a three-day strike in protest at what are attempts by the assembly's chairman, Hossam Al-Ghiriani, to undermine judicial authority.

The Supreme Administrative Court decided on Tuesday to postpone its final verdict on the validity of the Constituent Assembly to 16 October.

In a letter to the assembly on 8 October New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: "The draft provides for some basic political and economic rights but falls far short of international law on women's and children's rights, freedom of religion and expression and, surprisingly, torture and trafficking."

"Egyptian human rights organisations have repeatedly criticised the fact that many of the constitutional articles proposed fail to protect human rights and freedoms," Hafez Abu Seada, chairman of the Egyptian Human Rights Organisation, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He accused ultraconservative forces of imposing "their reactionary interpretation of the Quran on the constitution in an attempt to negate a whole range of hard won freedoms, especially those that relate to women".

"Article 36 of the draft constitution threatens equality between men and women by saying that the state shall ensure equality between men and women as long as it does not conflict with the rulings of Islamic Sharia and goes on to say that the state shall ensure that a woman will reconcile her duties towards the family and her work in society," said HRW.

Abu Seada accused the Salafis and members of the Muslim Brotherhood of insisting on inserting the reference to rulings of Sharia in the new constitution as a way of imposing their reactionary interpretations of Islamic law on society.

HRW also accused the assembly of undermining international agreements, to which Egypt is a signatory, criminalising the trafficking of women and children, and said the draft constitution discriminates against non-Abrahamic religions in terms of construction of places of worship and imposes restrictions on freedom of speech by banning discussions of alternative interpretations of matters religious. It criticised proposals by Salafi assembly members that Al-Azhar be designated the sole arbiter of Sharia, which Article 2 sets out as the main source of legislation.

"If Article 4 is included in the final draft it will effectively create a legislative vetting role for an unelected, unaccountable body with no recourse to judicial review," said HRW.

The leaders of several political parties have voiced concern that President Mohamed Morsi may attempt to dictate the electoral system used in upcoming parliamentary elections. Though the Constitutional Declaration issued by Morsi on 12 August gives him the right to determine which electoral system is used he should forego the privilege, they argue.

"If President Morsi chooses to impose an electoral system on the upcoming polls we will have moved back to Mubarak-era authoritarianism," says Democratic Front Party member Maher Abdel-Fattah.

But while representatives of political parties would like to see the electoral system a majority of them support being used there is as yet no consensus over what that should be. Differences between political parties remain as entrenched as ever with some arguing for an exclusively party-based system, others for a mix of party lists and independent candidates. Supporters of the former argue that it will circumvent familial and tribal ties and allow voters to focus on the manifestos offered by rival parties in determining how to vote. Supporters of a mixed system, such as Yasser Farouk of the Young Egypt Party, point out that party-based elections have been ruled unconstitutional on several occasions.

"Ninety-five per cent of Egyptians are not members of any political party," he says. "A party-list system would strip them of the right to run as independents, or to vote for an independent candidate."

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) -- the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood -- has announced that it is in favour of a mixed system dividing seats equally between independents and party-based candidates. The newly-formed Congress Party would prefer a party-list system.

Nor is there any consensus over the fate of the Shura Council. Magdi Hussein, chairman of the Labour Party, brands the Shura Council "a waste of time and money".

"A bicameral system is fine in federal countries like the US where states enjoy a certain level of autonomy," he says. "Egypt does not have a federal system that can justify the existence of a second house. And sharing legislative powers between two houses will complicate the passage of new laws and lead to unnecessary delays."

The Democratic Front Party has voiced fears that a second house will be manipulated by the FJP to tighten the Muslim Brotherhood's grip on political and parliamentary life.

Al-Ghiriani, the chairman of the Constituent Assembly, says most members are in favour of retaining the Shura Council but only after it is granted "significant legislative powers".

In a bid aimed at countering what it claims is hostile press coverage the assembly has launched a "Know Your Constitution" awareness campaign.

According to Al-Beltagui, the campaign "will make direct contact with ordinary citizens and tell them the draft constitution is a big democratic leap forward and that the press is spreading lies about it".

Al-Beltagui held two meetings this week with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and 6 April movement as part of a campaign "to train them on how to explain the draft constitution" to the public.

Former members of the now defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) said they would launch a counter campaign. Mahmoud Nafadi, spokesman of the Alliance of the People's Deputies which includes many former NDP MPs, says "the campaign will seek to inform citizens of the ways the new constitution has been tailored by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists to serve their partisan interests rather than the interests of the nation."

"The campaign will also target Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, pointing out how he has failed to implement the great bulk of his 100-day programme."

"We want to expose how the Muslim Brotherhood president has lied to the public and the Islamists use religion to justify their deceit. In short, we want to show how little difference there is between the tactics of the Brotherhood and those of the Mubarak regime," said Nafadi.

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