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Gebaly’s speech at Egypt First Conference provokes controversy

Constitutional rights and equality are the main points of controversy in the speech of Egypt's first woman judge at a gathering of January 25 Revolution political forces

Salma Shukrallah, Saturday 7 May 2011
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Tahani Al-Gebaly, the first Egyptian female judge, gave the first presentation proposing constitutional principles drafted by the National Working Group for Egypt’s Constitutional and Legal Development. Several of the points triggered controversy, not only in the conference hall but also online.

Gebaly’s speech started off by demanding a democratic civic constitution that does not only represent the view of legal experts but the people as a whole. She said: “Do not believe those who say a constitution should be written by legal experts; its principles should be formulated by the people."

While the draft’s first statement was welcomed with applause, other points were not welcomed as harmoniously, though participants differed in their reactions. After stating that the constitution should emphasise citizenship rights and diversity, Gebaly added that the new constitution should retain Islam as its main source of legislation while maintaining the right of other religions to abide by their own sources of legislation.

Many participants strongly applauded when Gebaly spoke of Islam as the main sources of legislation and some argued with others in the hall emphasising that it should be the main source. However, some demanded that Islam should be one of the sources and not the main or only source.

On the other hand, when former Al-Azhar Mufti Nasr Farid Wasel spoke to agree with Gebaly, and added that Egypt’s revolution was Islamic in nature, some participants shouted “We want a civic state and not a religious one!" Wasel added, following the chants, that “Islam agreed with a civil state.”

The most controversial point, and that which was mostly criticised later online, was Gebaly’s proposal that to fight illiteracy the constitution should tie the citizen’s educational level with his/her rights, saying that those who cannot read and write should not have equal voting rights to those who are literate.

Sarcasm spread on Twitter and Facebook shortly after and angry comments circulated stating that Gebaly was proposing that poor people should be punished for being discriminated against in terms of equal educational opportunity.

Gebaly’s proposal to remove the women’s, worker’s and farmer’s quota was also attacked by some. One of the participants commented afterwards that farmers, like him, are already discriminated against by, for example, the expropriation of their land for the benefit of rich landowners and that Gebaly’s proposal wants to revoke one of the few rights farmers have left.

However, Gebaly also proposed that the constitution should protect economic and social rights, including the right to a minimum wage as well as the right to strike and demonstrate peacefully, two statements that were highly welcomed within the conference hall.

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