Secular and Islamist factions in Egypt's Constituent Assembly battled it out during a five-hour closed door meeting Wednesday night on several contentious articles relating to religion that are, reportedly, holding up the completion of Egypt's national charter.
Spokesman of the constitution-drafting body Wahid Abdel-Meguid told Ahram Online on Thursday that assembly Chairman Hossam El-Gheryani had forced representatives of the differing political forces to meet with the objective of "settling their differences and moving forward to complete the first draft of the constitution".
Abdel-Meguid added that El-Gheryani had warned all attendees that if differences remain unresolved "the assembly will be paralyzed or will explode from within."
Constitutional law professors, reportedly, attended the meeting in order to act as intermediaries.
"They urged both camps not to stick too firmly to their positions as it is better to budge in the interest of Egypt,” explained Maged Shibita, a member of the assembly’s System of Governance Committee, on Thursday.
Nevertheless Abdel-Meguid remained positive.
"Although political forces are urged not to give any details about the agreement until it becomes final, it is enough to say at this stage a lot of progress was achieved during Wednesday’s meeting,” he said.
Younis Makhyoun, a leading member of the Salafist Nour Party agreed, telling Ahram Online that they had come to the crisis talks "with an open heart to settle all differences with seculars in order to save the assembly from collapse and tell the nation that we are up to the job."
The issue of the new religious articles proposed by the ultraconservative Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood was the primary focus of the meeting, according to Abdel-Meguid.
"These include Article 2 dealing with Islamic Sharia law, laws to be applied to non-Muslims, the formation of Zakat (alms-giving) and Waqf (religious endowment) institutions, the role of the Sunni Islam institution of Al-Azhar and blasphemy laws," Abdel-Meguid explained.
During Wednesday's conference, the secular camp asserted that as many as nine articles of the draft constitution should be re-written in order to ensure that Egypt remains a modern civil state.
"The assembly is at a critical moment," Ayman Nour, liberal assembly member and secretary-general of the newly formed Congress Party, admitted to Ahram Online Thursday.
"Secular members have indicated many times they will withdraw if they see that they are not able to prevent a constitution being written that is aimed at turning Egypt into a religious state,” the one-time 2005 candidate for president said.
This follows a meeting last week between leading secular figures including Nasserist eliminated presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, political liberal reformist Mohamed Elbaradei and Nour, which concluded that “unless nine articles are resolved in a way that is satisfactory to civil forces, all seculars will opt to withdraw from the assembly.”
Among the sticking points is the role of Al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam.
Sabbahi disclosed to Ahram Online Thursday that "representatives of civil forces reject the idea that Al-Azhar should have the final say on Islamic Sharia issues at the expense of judicial authorities and elected legislative bodies and that articles should be included concerning blasphemy crimes and Zakat. These items reflect a Salafist viewpoint and are rejected by the seculars,” Sabbahi added, warning again that if the Islamists did not accept their objections, "around 30 secular members would withdraw from the Assembly at once."
Nevertheless the attendees did reach agreement on key issues.
Informed sources, who wished to remain anonymous, revealed to Ahram Online that Wednesday’s meeting finished with most factions agreeing that Article 2 of Egypt's 1971 Constitution, which reads "principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation in Egypt" should be kept in place as it is.
However, an article will be added stating that in cases of personal litigation, Christians and Jews are to refer to their own laws, religious rituals and religious leaders.
The source also indicated that the Salafists had decided to moderate their position on another thorny issue: blasphemy crimes.
It was decided that blasphemy crimes should be regulated by law “but [the Salafists] insisted that an article criminalising any kind of insult directed to prophets, especially the Prophet Mohammed, his disciples and wives be drafted into the constitution,” the source added.
Salafist member Makhyoun said the ultraconservative Islamist group also showed flexibility on Article 2 on Sharia law's role in Egypt's legal system.
“However we requested that an article giving Al-Azhar a role rather than the final say in deciding Islamic Sharia issues be included,” he said, noting that “seculars still do not want Al-Azhar or any religious institution to play a part in religious matters on the grounds that this leads to the creation of a religious state in Egypt.”
Makhyoun also indicated that Salafists relinquished their demand that "Article 3 be drafted to state that sovereignty is to God rather than to the people alone', in exchange for an agreement that articles about Al-Azhar and religious endowments be drafted in another way."
He added that the Salafists proposed that “it is necessary to explore the opinion of Al-Azhar on Islamic Sharia issues and that Al-Azhar and its Grand Imam remain independent of any state supervision."
Maged Shibita affirmed to the parliamentary correspondents Thursday that “the meeting settled some issues such as Islamic Sharia however some critical issues remain and will be left to another round of talks.”
He indicated that the hardline Salafist position on the article establishing an alms-giving institution was softened.
"Seculars said this article should not be a part of the constitution but instead could be regulated by law," Shibita added.
Religious articles are not the only issue currently holding up the completion of the constitution. Abdel-Meguid told Ahram Online that the next meeting will be devoted to settling differences on the chapter of freedoms and rights, "especially articles dealing with women, children and press freedoms."
"This chapter deals with highly sensitive issues," said Abdel-Meguid, "if next week’s meeting fails to reach a common ground on freedoms and rights, it will mean that the progress made during Wednesday’s meeting is doomed.”
Nour agreed that issues of women's rights and freedoms of expression are "top of the agenda for secular forces", adding that they will "fight hard to ensure the new constitution reflects that.”
Nevertheless, Nour affirmed that “some progress” was achieved during Wednesday’s meeting.
"The main challenges remain in the next meeting," said Nour. "If we reach a final agreement next meeting, and I hope we will, a press conference will be held to announce the details. If we fail, this will not be good for restoring political stability to this country.”