Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 October 2012
Issue No. 1119
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Up for debate

The Constituent Assembly has put the long-awaited draft of the country's new constitution up for public debate after members were able to settle most of their ideological differences, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

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The fate of the Constituent Assembly will be determined next week

The Constituent Assembly -- the body tasked with drafting Egypt's new constitution -- took the important and long-awaited step of unveiling the first draft of Egypt's new national charter this week. Though incomplete, officials from the assembly said the draft constitution had advanced in terms of freedoms and rights and that they were keen to release the draft for public debate in the most transparent possible way.

Chairman of the assembly Hossam Al-Ghiriani said that "we can not continue discussing chapters of the draft inside the assembly's committees forever, and there should be a deadline to unveil the complete draft to put it up for a public debate even if some chapters of it are still incomplete."

The first draft of the new constitution was announced at a press conference on 10 October, and on Monday, Mohamed Mahboub, minister of state for parliamentary affairs and chair of the assembly's drafting committee, announced the release of an amended second draft.

Al-Ghiriani indicated on Tuesday that the assembly's discussion of the draft would begin on 4 November and last for four days. "Because of the holiday of the Adha Feast and the fact that some members of the assembly are on pilgrimage for two weeks from now, the discussion of the draft will begin in the first week of November, or exactly on 4 November, and last for four days," Al-Ghiriani said.

He added that "in the second week of November we hope that after the discussion we will be able to vote on the draft on an article-by-article basis, allowing us to arrive at a final draft that will be presented for a yes-or-no public referendum."

However, Al-Ghiriani's schedule may not go as smoothly as expected, since on 23 October the Higher Administrative Court will give its final ruling on the Constituent Assembly's current formation. The fate of the first draft will not be clear in case of a ruling ordering the dissolution of the assembly.

The new draft constitution includes more than 220 articles, and when all its chapters are complete it is expected to have more than 250 articles, compared to the 211-article 1971 constitution.

Mohamed Al-Beltagui, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and chair of the assembly's proposals committee, announced the first draft on 10 October, saying that "Egyptians will be required to vote on the constitution as a whole -- and not on the basis of article by article -- in a yes-or-no public referendum."

Al-Beltagui said that "the draft text of the constitution is not final, and all public views will be taken into account at the time of making the final draft." It was not complete, he said, "because it does not include chapters on the judiciary or on the relationship between the state and the Armed Forces."

A publicity campaign under the title "Know Your Constitution" was launched on 11 October in collaboration with the State Information Authority.

Gamal Gibril, chair of the assembly's system of governance committee, said that "members of the assembly agreed that a mixed parliamentary-presidential system is the best for Egypt at the moment." According to Gibril, "Egypt is still not ripe or qualified for a parliamentary system, and it is better for the moment to have a mixed system where the president of the republic and prime minister share power."

Gibril indicated that "members also agreed that the bi-cameral system would be maintained, with the People's Assembly -- Egypt's lower house of parliament -- being renamed the 'House of Representatives' and the upper consultative house of the Shura Council becoming the 'Senate'."

According to Gibril, the House would act as the country's main watchdog institution on the government, while the Senate would be granted legislative and supervisory powers, but would not have the right to discuss the state's annual budget or the five-year development plans or bring the prime minister to a vote of confidence.

The draft maintains Article 2 of the 1971 constitution regarding the status of Islamic Sharia law. The article states that the "principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation in Egypt." Ultraconservative Salafis had been pressing hard to have Article 2 amended to read that "Islamic Sharia or the rules of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation in Egypt."

The draft also maintains Article 5 of the 1971 constitution, which states that "sovereignty is vested in the people" despite pressure from the Salafis who wanted the article to read "supremacy is for God alone". To the dismay of the Salafis, the draft does not provide any role for the Sunni Islam institution of Al-Azhar as an absolute reference on Islamic Sharia matters.

Gibril also revealed that the draft does not include an article reserving 50 per cent of the seats in the two houses of parliament to "representatives of farmers and workers". However, "this does not mean that the article had been relinquished completely, but it will be left to a national dialogue to have the final say about it," he said.

The allocation of 50 per cent of the seats in parliament to workers and farmers was first introduced by the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in 1964 as part of his socialist polices aimed at "giving poorer sectors of society a greater say in political and parliamentary life".

The unveiling of two drafts of the new draft constitution in one week was strongly attacked by secularist forces. Ayman Nour, chair of the Ghad Al-Thawra Party (Revolution's Tomorrow Party), said "it was by no means a good time to announce two drafts of the constitution, because the political forces are still negotiating their differences over many articles."

"Unveiling two drafts will make it difficult for Islamist and secularist forces to reach a consensus, and we are now in a very difficult position," he said.

Joining forces with Nour, Fouad Badrawi, a member of the liberal-oriented Wafd Party, said "the unveiling of the drafts was a hasty decision, and there should be a kind of national consensus before announcing any more drafts."

Badrawi also noted that there were differences between the two drafts announced in the same week. He told Al-Ahram Weekly that last week's draft did not mention Al-Azhar, "but we were surprised to find that last Tuesday's draft devoted a complete article to Al-Azhar. A new article [Article 4] was added stating that 'Al-Azhar is an independent institution and the selection of its grand imam will be regulated by a law'."

Tuesday's draft also stated that "once approved in a public referendum, the constitution can be amended only after five years of being put into effect."

In response to these attacks, Al-Ghiriani insisted that "the draft is not final, and it will be left to national dialogue to decide. However, it was necessary to announce it now because public opinion has a right to know about it rather than be kept in the dark or just find out about it from newspapers and the media."

The two drafts have also caused angry reactions from other forces, among them the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). In a statement issued on Tuesday, the draft constitution strips the SCC of its independence and puts it at the mercy of the president of the republic.

The court said it should come under an independent chapter of the constitution and not under the chapter regulating the judiciary as a whole. "This is a necessity to guarantee that the SCC is not part of any authority and is completely independent and its rulings are binding on all state authorities," the court said.

The Egyptian National Movement (ENM), led by prominent constitutional law professor Ibrahim Darwish, also condemned the drafts, arguing that "they keep most of the draconian powers granted to the president of the republic by the 1971 constitution."

The ENM also said "the drafts strip women of their rights on the grounds that these should not violate the rules of Islamic Sharia. It also goes against media freedoms and represents an assault on the independence of the judiciary."

Egypt was not in need of two houses of parliament, the ENM said, and "political parties for workers and farmers should be set up ahead of relinquishing the right of their representatives to have 50 per cent of the seats in parliament."

Some Salafist forces also launched scathing attacks on the drafts. The Asala Party and the Salafist Front said they would "strongly object to any constitution that did not clearly state that the rules of Islamic Sharia are the major source of legislation in Egypt."

The unveiling of the two drafts of the constitution came after secularist and Islamist factions in the assembly had battled out some of their ideological differences over contentious articles during four closed-door meetings.

Al-Sayed Al-Badawi, chairman of the Wafd Party, revealed on 12 October that most factions had agreed that Article 2 of Egypt's 1971 constitution, which reads "the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation in Egypt" should be kept in place as it is.

However, he added that an article would be added stating that in cases of civil litigation, Christians and Jews should refer to their own laws, religious rituals and religious leaders.

Al-Badawi said that the Salafis had decided to moderate their position on blasphemy. Informed sources had said it had been decided that blasphemy crimes should be regulated by law, "but [the Salafis] had insisted that an article criminalising any kind of insult directed at prophets, especially the Prophet Mohamed and his disciples, should be added."

Human rights organisations said that this article was aimed at preventing the Shia brand of Islam from expressing negative views about the prophet's wives and disciples.

Salafi member of the assembly Younis Makhioun said the ultraconservative Islamist group had opened the way for consensus after it had shown flexibility on Article 2 on the role of Sharia law in Egypt's legal system and relinquished the pressure for an article giving Al-Azhar the final say in deciding Islamic Sharia issues. It had also dropped the demand that Article 3 give "supremacy to God rather than to the people", he said.

Makhioun added that in exchange the Salafis had proposed that "an article exploring the opinion of Al-Azhar on Islamic Sharia issues and guaranteeing that Al-Azhar and its grand imam remain independent of state supervision" should be added.

Maged Shibita, a member of the assembly's system of governance committee, also indicated that the Salafist position on establishing an alms-giving institution was softened. "Secularists have said that this article should not be a part of the constitution, but instead could be regulated by law," he added.

The religious articles were not the only ones that held up the completion of the new constitution. Al-Badawi indicated that settling differences on the chapter on freedoms and rights, "especially the articles dealing with women, children and press freedoms," had taken much time and effort.

He said that the two groups had not been able to reach common ground on Article 36, which aims at ensuring equality between men and women. The Salafis reject this article outright, as they allege it contradicts the rulings of Islamic Sharia, and they want the new constitution to omit any articles criminalising the trafficking of women and children, saying international agreements banning this trafficking reflect Western values.

The Salafis also want a ban on all non-Abrahamic religions, especially Bahaais, building places of worship.

Meanwhile, a verbal battle between Al-Ghiriani and members of the State Cases Authority and the Administrative Prosecution Authority escalated. A meeting aimed at settling differences on 14 October failed.

Ahmed Khalifa, a judge and a member of the assembly, said Al-Ghiriani had refused to give members of the two authorities judicial powers. "This reflects a negative view of these two authorities, which want to play a greater role in cracking down on corruption," Khalifa said.

On Tuesday, nine public figures were elected members of the Constituent Assembly, including Hatem Azzam, Wagih Al-Shimi, Abdel-Moneim Al-Tunisi, Omar Abdel-Hadi, Mibid Al-Garhi, Ramadan Batikh, Suzi Nashed, Ahmed Al-Biali, George Misiha and Rifaat Lakousha.

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