Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)
Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Issue 1168, (10 - 16 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

For a genuinely new constitution

Activist and commentator Samer Atallah explained his worries at the low level of the state’s commitment to the underprivileged in the country’s draft new constitution to Dina Ezzat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Samer Atallah, a prominent activist and commentator, is still willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the new constitution that is currently being drafted and should be ready for a referendum in late November or early December.
However, he cannot conceal his concerns over what could be produced “in view of the proposed text and the amendments that were made to the drafting committee” by a smaller committee of judges in the summer.
According to Atallah, the 10-member committee’s proposals do not increase the level of the state’s commitment to ensuring basic rights and welfare over what was included in the 2012 constitution.
The 50-member committee in charge of the drafting, he said, had been presented with a draft that “does not express in no uncertain terms the idea that the state is committed to providing citizens with education, healthcare, and decent housing and to protecting their personal and public freedoms.”
“Some of the language in the 2012 constitution committed the state further than the proposals put forward by the committee of 10 for the new constitution.”
Atallah is willing to agree that there is room for improvement, although he does not necessarily see it coming. He hopes for “some give and take and some sensitivity to the criticisms being made in the wider community.”
“I don’t want to prejudge the final product, but if we are to expect the draft that has been offered to be the basis for what will eventually result, then we cannot really expect a better constitution than the one that was adopted under [ousted former president] Mohamed Morsi. It may even be a worse one in some respects relating to state commitments to the rights of the unprivileged in general,” Atallah said.
These underprivileged elements could certainly include some minorities, including women, whose rights seemed to have been reduced to some personal status matters, and the Copts, also perceived for the most part from the angle of personal status regulations.
“A citizen, any citizen, needs things that go beyond the regulations of marriage and divorce, however. A Muslim or a Copt, like a man or a woman, needs access to education, healthcare, housing, employment and of course to dignity if they are underprivileged.”
“People who are members of minority groups are faced with other issues, but those too have to do with equal rights to access jobs and to practice religious faith with freedom and dignity and not just to bow to some religious-based personal status regulations. This is an area of concern for mainstream Copts as it is for mainstream Muslims,” Atallah said.
Atallah was speaking on the eve of the second anniversary of the 9 October 2011 carnage, when Coptic demonstrators in Cairo were attacked by soldiers at the instigation of state-run TV during a demonstration to protest against attacks on Coptic churches during the transitional phase.
Atallah said that in the “Coptic mind as it seems now” bad memories of military rule during the transition between the fall of president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011 and the inauguration of former president Mohamed Morsi on 30 June 2012 were now remote compared to the present fears of the majority of Copts.
“For many people today, especially for Copts, of course the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is gone is a source of relief, and this is why many Copts are feeling better about the next constitution even before the final draft is out, since the last one was drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood.”
He added that during the year of Morsi’s rule there had been no serious efforts on the part of the state to accommodate Coptic fears.
“In fact, there was the opposite, as the public discourse of some of the leadership of the Brotherhood, especially towards the second half of the year and indeed during the sit-ins that followed the ouster of Morsi, left many Copts more apprehensive than they had been before,” Atallah said.
He added that “as far as the Church is concerned, and this also goes for mainstream Copts, the 2012 constitution made the first plain reference to the rights of ‘Copts and Jews’ to follow their own religious regulations on matters of personal status.”
Representatives of the Coptic Church, as well as of the Catholic and Evangelical Churches in Egypt, walked out of the final drafting sessions of the 2012 constitution, along with liberal forces, over disagreements on the text.
These focused particularly on Article 219, perceived as problematic as it gave a very loose definition to Islamic jurisprudence and could have allowed the introduction of laws that might have tampered with the basic freedoms of non-Muslims.
Atallah is not sure whether this controversial article will now be removed or whether it will be worked around in a way that makes it more compatible with the tight definition of Sharia religious law presented by the Supreme Constitutional Court.
“At the end of the day, they might keep Article 219 one way or another because this would be the way to keep [the Salafist] Nour Party from walking away from the constitution. They don’t want the Salafis to walk away, since this would look as if they were turning their back on political Islam, thus antagonising a considerable sector of society,” Atallah said.
Atallah is convinced that what is good for society as a whole would also be good for minorities “in the sense that the constitution should be a contract between society and the state, and it should clearly stipulate the role of the state towards the citizens. If all citizens have access to basic socio-economic rights and freedoms then this is a good beginning,” he said.
He said that there was a need for the constitution to acknowledge “in clear language” the need to end all forms of discrimination, including anti-Coptic discrimination, “which did not start and did not end with Morsi.”
“I know that there has been an attempt to include a line about establishing a body to monitor and reduce many forms of discrimination, and though this would not immediately reduce the volume of discrimination I think it would be a good beginning. It underlines the responsibility of the state to stand firm in the face of discrimination,” Atallah argued.
He said that the Copts, or any other minority group, could not be given decent arrangements in and by themselves away from the wider society. Decent arrangements in the real sense of the words meant “the establishment of a new republic on the right basis and after having established a true concept of transitional justice to deal with the errors of the former one.”
“Needless to say, the Copts suffered, like many other groups, from problems over the past 40 years,” Atallah said.
According to Atallah such “a new republic” could not be established if the Islamists were excluded from it. “We have much to criticise them for, but we cannot draft the basis for the new republic alone.”
Any exclusion of the Islamists or haste in drafting the new constitution would lead to a vitiated final product. “Other developing nations like India, Brazil and Guatemala took a couple of years to write well thought-through and fairly detailed constitutions that truly allowed for a new beginning and granted the rights of all citizens, including minorities. This is what we should have done,” Atallah said.
He added that in the absence of such a fresh start, any new document produced by the 50-member committee would only establish a new phase of the republic established under the 1952 Revolution and amended with the 1971 Revolution and subsequently after the 1973 October War and under the rule of former president Mubarak.
“We are still living with a patched-up version of the 1971 constitution. This was the case in 2012, and it looks as if it is going to be the case in 2013. This goes for the majority as it does for the minorities, to different degrees,” Atallah concluded.

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