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Egyptian intellectuals propose alternative constitution stressing freedoms

Group of prominent Egyptian intellectuals claim new constitution – now being drafted by Islamist-led Constituent Assembly – threatens freedom of expression

Mary Mourad, Monday 24 Sep 2012
alternative constitution stressing freedoms
Demonstrators take part in a protest marking the first anniversary of Egypt's uprising at Tahrir square in Cairo January 25, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)
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Freedom of expression could be threatened under Egypt's new constitution, a group of leading intellectuals said Monday.

Egypt's Constituent Assembly, which is tasked with drafting a new constitution, should be disbanded and reconstituted with new membership, prominent Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher asserted at a press conference organised by the National Committee for the Defence of Freedom of Expression (NCDFE).

"This is a critical phase," Mohamed Salmawy, head of the Egyptian Writers Union, said at the conference. "Now that a new regime is stabilising, there is a risk that the new constitution will be formulated by only one section of society," he added, referring to Islamist political forces.

"Winning a parliamentary majority gave the [Islamists] some authority, but not the right to exclude others from writing the national charter," Salmawy argued.

The names of ten members of the Writers' Union had been suggested for membership in the Constituent Assembly, but none were accepted, he added.

Bahieddin Hassan, for his part, head of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights, called for a rethink of how the current assembly had been drawn up.

"The draft constitution jeopardises Egypt's unity," said Hassan. "It also compromises equality and goes so far as to exclude faiths other than Sunni Islam."

He proposed that political parties should begin drafting their own "parallel" constitution to provide an alternative charter for the Egyptian public's consideration.

NCDFE coordinator Salah Eissa said the Constituent Assembly had been "unresponsive" to the needs of journalists.

Only two proposals made by journalists had been accepted by the assembly, he said.

One was an article guaranteeing the right to own private newspapers; the second was for newspapers to be licensed via simple notification rather than having to apply for a licence.

"As long as national newspapers are under the authority of [the Supreme Council of the Press in] the Shura Council, [national newspapers] will remain under the control of the majority party," Eissa stressed.

Meanwhile, the right to protest and hold sit-ins and strikes is also at risk under the terms of the draft constitution, Egyptian Communist Party leader Ahmed Bahaaeddin Shaaban said.

"It's sad that 20 months after the revolution we're meeting at the syndicate with the feeling that freedom of opinion is in danger," said journalist Galal Aref.

The improved environment for press freedom could be at risk under the new constitution, he warned.

It is evident from the draft constitutional articles that the Constituent Assembly has neglected the numerous proposals and documents presented to it by a number of institutions and civil and human rights organisations, the NCDFE statement said.

Most prominent of these is the Al-Azhar Document, which had been welcomed by a large segment of Egyptians, it argued.

Moreover, the draft of the 'Freedoms and Rights' section of the constitution is in fact much worse than the first, due to the removal of the article that reads, "Literary, artistic and cultural creativity is the right of every citizen" due to its inclusion in a separate article. Moreover, the article states "freedom of creativity" without adequately outlining the meaning of these terms.

Also criticised is the removal of the article on the freedom of scientific research from a separate article on the basis of its inclusion in the section on 'basic components' of state and society. The section in which it is now included is largely restricted to universities only.

The statement further calls on Egyptians who took part in last year's revolution to stand against the assembly and expose its wrongdoings in hopes of drafting a truly representative charter for post-revolution Egypt.

The group further called on political parties, former presidential candidates, and civil and human rights organisations to take a firm stance against the assembly for the purpose of having a constitution that is truly "for all Egyptians."

On Monday, Constituent Assembly spokesman Wahid Abdel-Meguid presented an official document criticising the draft issued by the assembly's speech and press freedoms committee. He stated that two articles therein greatly threatened the freedom of press and could lead to unfair media penalties for journalists.

Also on Monday, human rights activist Manal El-Tibi announced that she was withdrawing from the assembly due to alleged "intimidation" by Islamist members.

She explained that, as deputy head of the assembly's freedoms and rights committee, she had proposed several articles for inclusion in the new constitution that had been rejected by Islamist committee members.

The Constituent Assembly currently drafting Egypt's constitution has been criticised for its large proportion of Islamist-leaning members and for not adequately representing Copts, women, Nubians, Bedouin and other minorities.

Notably, in June, a number of liberal assembly members staged a mass walkout to protest what they saw as the assembly's unrepresentative character.

Monday's press conference was held at the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate's Cairo headquarters.

The NCDFE is comprised of prominent writers, journalists, activists and politicians.

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