Human rights activists have voiced concern over Egypt's draft constitution – articles of which have been recently released to the public – which they say could potentially violate women's and minorities' rights.
"If Article 4 of the draft constitution gives Al-Azhar control over the interpretation of Islamic texts within the context of legislation, then that would simply mean that an elected parliament is undermined as the legislative body," said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Speaking to Ahram Online as the draft constitution was being subject to public debate before being put before a popular referendum, Morayef also expressed deep concern over the rights of women if draft Article 36 is adopted. Addressing women’s rights, Article 36 of the draft charter includes an unprecedented reference to the 'rules of Islamic Law' – unprecedented given the lack of consensus among Muslim scholars over these rules, which had accumulated over 14 centuries based on diverse interpretations of the Quran and the sayings and deeds of Prophet Mohamed.
Throughout the entire draft there is only one reference to the 'principles of Sharia,' a more consensual body of guidelines. Article 2 of this draft adopts the same line as the previous 1971 constitution, stipulating that "Islamic Sharia is the main source of legislation." In previous constitutions, this article had made Islamic Sharia "a main" and not "the main" source of legislation, until late president Anwar Sadat decided to have it amended to bolster his image as "a Muslim president for a Muslim state."
"By all accounts, the text of the [draft] article amounts to a serious setback to women’s rights; it is really problematic," asserted Morayef.
Women's groups have been lobbying hard within the drafting committee for the amendment of this and other draft articles relevant to women’s rights. They have not, however, been successful, due to the heavy Islamist influence on the committee.
Today, Morayef is not really sure whether or not the feedback coming out of the public debate over the draft text will be enough to force the desired changes. "I really cannot tell which way it will go," she said.
The full text of Article 36 includes what women’s rights and other activists qualify as a firm base for anti-woman discrimination.
Morayef says it may be unrealistic to have the whole article re-written. But, like other rights activists, she is hoping that the reference to "the rules of Sharia" will be replaced with "the principles of Sharia," not merely to make it compatible with the rest of the constitution and thus eliminate the clear bias reflected against women, but also to close the door before a possible attack on basic women’s rights to which Egypt had committed under arguable readings of the "rules."
Earlier this month, HRW sent a letter articulating this and other concerns to the constitutional drafting committee.
The concerns expressed in the letter, said Morayef, include references to articles the content of which opens the door for possible violations of basic rights. Other draft articles referred to in the HRW letter were what Morayef qualifies as "articles whose wording is not very clear."
One example of the second category is Article 5, which ostensibly aims to protect prisoners and arrested citizens, as it prohibits "any physical or moral abuse." It does not, however, make any direct reference to torture.
"Given that Islamists are very familiar with torture as they suffered from it significantly [under the former regime], it is not exactly understandable why they should refrain from clearly prohibiting it in the text of the constitution," Morayef said. She added that HRW and other rights groups had been arguing for the need to include a clear prohibition of torture in the constitution because the current draft offers "a much lower threshold."
Morayef is also concerned about the proposed removal of language related to the prohibition of "human trafficking" on the notion that such phrasing is "alien to Egyptian culture," as has been asserted by some Salafist members of the drafting committee.
"Human trafficking is a concern for Egypt as for other countries," Morayef said. "Egypt previously had an excellent law concerning this matter."
Former first lady Suzanne Mubarak had supported local civil society's long fight against human trafficking – including child marriages, a phenomenon that had proliferated during summer holidays among rich Arab holidaymakers.
"To call the law the 'Suzanne Mubarak law' was only intended to give it a bad name. All the laws adopted to support rights and freedoms were the result of the hard work of civil society and not gifts from the state," Morayef argued.
Morayef is also concerned over the rights of minorities – including both Egypt's Coptic-Christian and Bahai communities – due to the text of two draft articles related to the freedom of belief that would deprive the latter of their right to worship freely.
Bahaism is an offshoot of Islam. A Constitutional Court ruling a few years ago gave Egypt's Bahais the full right of equal citizenship as all other Egyptians, whether Muslims, Coptic-Christians or Jews. There is no accurate figure for the number of Bahais in Egypt, but they are estimated to be around a few thousand.
Article 9 of the draft constitution, which was referred to in HRW's letter to the drafting committee, reads in part: “The divine being is protected and any criticism thereof is prohibited, as are [criticisms of] the prophets of God and all of his messengers, the mothers of the faithful and the rightly-guided caliphs."
This text, Morayef contends, could be used to harass Shia Muslims, who hold views critical of the first three Muslim caliphs and who are estimated in Egypt to number anywhere between a few thousand and a million. "I'm really concerned for the Shias," she said.
Morayef also shares the concerns of some Coptic-Christian rights groups about the possible "abuse" of the reference to the "divine being of God," in light of notable differences regarding this qualification in the Muslim and Coptic creeds.
More threatening, perhaps, to Coptic-related issues, Morayef adds, is the draft constitution's reference to all citizens' obligation "to protect national unity and to protect society."
"On one hand, the draft article could be designed to prohibit any instigation of civil strife," Morayef suggested. "But it could also be easily used to prevent activists from combating anti-Coptic discrimination."
Morayef acknowledges that the battle for rights will be an uphill one, but she is also concerned that some of the draft articles that HRW has recently criticised "could end up putting certain basic rights at risk."