Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-
Tuesday,26 March, 2019
Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-

Ahram Weekly

Politics of the playground

The constitution drafting Constituent Assembly is on a roller coaster to nowhere, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

Al-Ahram Weekly

Divisions between supporters of a civilian state and Islamists on the Constituent Assembly reached a crescendo this week when a third of the assembly’s members announced that they were withdrawing from the constitution drafting body. The departing secularists accused representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties of dictating a constitution whose ultimate aim is to transform Egypt into an Islamist state along the lines of Wahhabi Saudi Arabia.
“No one objects to the application of Islamic Sharia as long as its principles are interpreted in the context of the centrist and moderate Islam long practised in Egypt. The problem is with those who want to impose an interpretation of Sharia that is inimical to the moderate Islam embraced by the majority of Egyptian society and who are seeking to exploit the whole issue to further their narrow partisan agenda,” withdrawing assembly members said in a statement.
The exodus began on 13 November when 25 mostly liberals and leftists — led by former presidential candidate Amr Moussa — announced their intention to suspend their membership of the assembly. On 18 November they announced their withdrawal from the assembly’s ranks “after it became clear those leading the process of drafting the constitution had no interest in consensus or in reflecting the aspirations of Egyptians to build a functioning civil state”.
Secularists were emboldened by the 17 November decision of representatives of Egypt’s Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches to withdraw from the assembly. The move was supported by two secular Copts, political analyst Samir Morcos and deputy chairman of the assembly’s Freedoms Committee Edward Ghalib. “The assembly is forging ahead with writing a constitution that will underpin an Islamist state, not one that seeks to enshrine national unity,” said Ghalib.  
“The reason for the withdrawal of Church representatives is that it is now abundantly clear that the aim of those forcing through the draft constitution is to place Egypt on the road to becoming a religious state. Article 220 was added in the face of pressure from Salafis to ensure radical interpretations of the principles of Islamic Sharia as mentioned in Article 2. While Article 2, affirming that the principles of Islamic Sharia are the major source of legislation in Egypt, won consensual support Salafis fired a volley of amendments demanding an explanatory gloss.”
Ghalib argued that the real goal of Article 220 is to supplant the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) which under the 1971 constitution interpreted the principles of  Islamic Sharia.
“Islamists object to the moderate interpretations of the SCC. With Article 220 they are seeking to pave the way for radical and mediaeval interpretations of Islam that will transform Egypt into an Islamist state and ultimately turn Christians into second class citizens.”
During the press conference held by withdrawing members of the Wafd Party’s headquarters, Wahid Abdel-Meguid warned that Article 220 could easily open the door to Wahhabi-style morality police, aided and abetted by vigilante groups.
Abdel-Meguid went on to argue that members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist political parties had joined forces to force through Article 220 because they hope, at some later stage, to turn Al-Azhar itself into a forum for their own intolerant brand of Islam.
“Article 4 states that the grand imam of Al-Azhar will be chosen according to the law. But no one knows how this law governing his selection is to be passed, or what it will be.”
It is no secret that the Muslim Brotherhood would dearly like to see the incumbent grand imam, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, replaced.
While Abdel-Meguid urged Al-Azhar’s two representatives on the assembly, Hassan Al-Shafie and Nasr Wassel, to join Church delegates and withdraw, Ghalib said the Coptic Church was currently consulting with Al-Azhar to urge the same.
Abdel-Meguid, who has been the assembly’s spokesman since its inception last June, was replaced on Sunday by Mohamed Al-Sawy, nominally independent but with close links to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Moussa blamed the withdrawal of delegates who support a civil state squarely on the shoulders of those who have consistently sought to dictate the constitution-drafting process as well as on the mismanagement of assembly debates.
“We tried everything in our power to address these issues but our efforts were to no avail,” said Moussa. “The result is a draft constitution dominated by sloppy wording and accepted in the absence of discussion.”
“The committee entrusted with writing the final draft of the constitution was formed in such a way as to exclude any reflection of the diversity of opinion that exists.”
Moussa argued that the result will be a constitution that undermines the interests of Egyptian society “not only in religious matters, but also when it comes to guarantees of social justice and a democratic system based on a delicate balance of powers”.
The Wafd Party chose 18 November to announce that its seven representatives would quit the assembly. Two, however — lawyer Mohamed Kamel and journalist Mohamed Abdel-Alim Dawoud — have indicated their intention to defy the party line and could risk expulsion from the Wafd’s ranks.
“I am not in favour of withdrawals. I would prefer to fight my case till the end rather than leave the battlefield,” said Kamel.
Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat, the chairman of the Reform and Development Party who has left the assembly, believes Kamel to be misguided. In a statement Sadat said he had quit “for the sake of God and Egypt”, adding that it is “deplorable the constitution of Egypt is being drafted in the face of extortion and threats issued by those who trade in religious and revolutionary slogans”.
Ayman Nour, chairman of the Ghad Al-Thawra Party, said on Sunday the party’s three delegates were suspending their activities and that a final position would be announced on Saturday. A statement issued by the party blamed the assembly’s poor performance and the “drafting of articles solely to ensure the president of the republic has sweeping powers or else to open the door for a religious state in Egypt” on Constituent Assembly chairman Hossam Al-Ghiriani.
Nine of the 11 members of the assembly’s advisory Committee have also quit. They include leading constitutional law expert Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd; political analyst Hassan Nafaa and Nasserist activist Hamdi Kandil. In a letter to Al-Ghiriani they said that while they were happy to have fulfilled their duty by offering numerous suggestions it was “regrettable that you lent a deaf ear to all of them”.
On 20 November the Press Syndicate opted to join the withdrawals and ordered its delegates — syndicate chairman Mamdouh Al-Wali, journalist and poet Farouk Gweida, political analyst Wahid Abdel-Meguid, political activist Ayman Nour and Wafdist Mohamed Abdel-Alim Dawoud — to leave the assembly. Mohamed Abdel-Kader, chairman of the Syndicate of Farmers, decided to quit on the same day.
By Tuesday the numbers of those quitting had risen to the extent that the assembly would be unable to secure the 67-member quorum required for articles to be passed on a first reading.
Despite being singled out for criticism repeatedly Al-Ghiriani remained defiant. He told the assembly’s majority of Islamists from both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties that they “should not be bothered by the flurry of withdrawals”.
“It is better to go forward and complete our job without listening to all of this fuss,” he said.
Salafi Younis Makhioun insisted that “liberal forces want to impose their secular agenda and worldly views on Egypt’s constitution” adding that “Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country and its constitution should stress this fact.”
Makhioun and other Islamist hawks appeared to welcome the possibility they could monopolise the assembly.
“If they want to withdraw, then OK. We can simply replace them with others,” said Makhioun.
On 19 November Islamist delegates held their own press conference at which they accused those who had withdrawn of trying to “steal the show”.
Abul-Ela Madi, the assembly’s deputy chairman, insisted it was wrong to think that Article 220 might open the door to a religious state.
“The article clearly states that the principles of Islamic Sharia should include its core basics, its fundamentalist and jurisprudent rules, and highly esteemed sources as adopted by the Sunnis. It was carefully worded by Al-Azhar and its high-profile clerics. Why then all this row?” he asked.
“Suggestions that a third of members have withdrawn are false,” claimed assembly secretary-general Amr Darrag, citing as evidence that 71 members had attended an assembly meeting within the last week. Darrag said it was too early for the assembly to move to select new members to replace those that had withdrawn.
“Packing the assembly with yet more Islamist loyalists to replace members who have withdrawn will strip the constitution it proposes of the last vestiges of legitimacy,” warned Abdel-Meguid. “It will be the first time in Egypt’s modern history that its constitution is written in the absence of representatives of the Church and civilian forces.”
Abdel-Meguid urged President Morsi to appoint a more balanced assembly.
While the withdrawals have dominated the headlines the nitty-gritty of drafting articles is progressing at a snail’s pace. Gamal Gibril, chairman of the assembly’s System of Governance Committee, revealed that “the chapter on judicial authorities has not yet been completed.”
“We are still negotiating with judicial representatives in an attempt to reach a consensus over a final draft,” he said. Gibril also admitted the assembly has been unable to agree what should happen about the 50 per cent of People’s Assembly seats currently reserved for the representatives of farmers and workers.
The General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions decided on 18 November to allow the assembly two days to confirm that the 50 per cent quota would remain or else it, too, would withdraw.  
Until Al-Ahram Weekly went to press the assembly had discussed the texts of 129 articles, 28 from the chapter on State and Society; 51 from the Freedoms and Rights chapter and 50 from the System of Governance chapter. Members voted for the retention of the Shura Council and rejected that it change its name to the Senate. They did, however, vote for the People’s Assembly changing its name to the House of Representatives.
The assembly also approved Article 129, giving the president the right to dissolve parliament, though only if the move is endorsed by a public referendum. Should the president call for such a referendum and the vote be no then it is the president who is obliged to resign. 

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