On 8 September, a 50-member committee began work on amending Egypt's constitution after a first version had been submitted to the interim president by a committee of ten experts in late August.
Unlike the previous 100-member Constituent Assembly, dominated by Islamists – Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists – the current committee of 50 is composed overwhelmingly of secularists, who are against mixing politics and religion. Only two members, a Salafist from the Nour Party and a former Muslim Brother, who is now its fiercest critic, represent political Islam (if we put aside the three representatives of Al-Azhar, supporters of moderate Islam).
The lack of Islamist representation on the 50-member committee is the direct result of the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood and its fall in popularity. It is also due to a change in how the committee was chosen.
While the previous Constituent Assembly was chosen by the Islamist-dominated parliament, the current 50-member committee was appointed by the president following nominations by political parties, professional unions and various state bodies which are dominated by liberals – for example farmers, workers, lawyers, journalists, writers, artists, university professors – and include segments of the population that are usually underrepresented in elected assemblies, notably women and young people. In addition, the ten public figures appointed to the committee belong to the liberal current.
Given its largely secular composition, the committee is likely to leave intact, or even reinforce, the "de-Islamisation" of the 2012 constitution initiated by the ten-member committee of experts.
The latter removed articles and expressions strengthening the role of Islamic Sharia in politics and society. It kept Article 2, dating from the 1971 constitution, and about which there is unanimity, which states that the "principles" of Sharia are the main source of legislation. It removed, however, Article 219 which explains these principles in a way that reduces the freedom of lawmakers and the Constitutional Court.
Obsessed by the supposed growth of Shiism in Egypt, the Salafist Nour Party, which first called for Article 219, argued that it was needed to defend Sunnis from Shia proselytism. But liberals see it as a means of imposing a strict and rigid, even "medieval" interpretation of Sharia, incompatible with a modern Islamic society.
The ten-member committee also removed Article 4, which consolidated restrictions imposed on parliament and the Constitutional Court by granting Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni authority, an advisory role on all legislation relating to Sharia. In fact, this article formalised and made mandatory a practice already in place to seek the advice of Al-Azhar on the laws relating to Sharia. Al-Azhar, however, never called for such a strengthening of its role. It is even opposed to it, saying it did not want to be dragged into politics.
The ten-member committee's draft also cleared the 2012 text of various provisions and additions of religious inspiration. These are Article 10, which says the state and "society" protect moral values, which could, according to some jurists, pave the way for the creation of a religious police; Article 44 which prohibits offence against the "prophets and messengers" of God, and Article 76 which authorises judges to make rulings based on the texts of the constitution, not only laws. That would have allowed judges to decide sentences by referring to constitutional texts relating to Sharia. Article 69 of the new draft constitution explicitly limits penalties to those mentioned in the penal code.
In the same vein, the draft constitution consolidates the proscription against mixing religion with politics. It has thus strengthened the language of Article 54 which prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion or a religious frame of reference. This marks a return to the language of the 1971 constitution and the March 2011 constitutional declaration issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Yet it is under this declaration that Islamist parties, taking advantage of the new political climate, were created after the fall of the Mubarak regime. They argued, and still argue, that they are civil parties with an Islamic frame of reference and do not intend to create a religious state.
The change in the political situation, represented by the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood and the likely ban on this group for the incitement and use of violence, in collaboration with some Salafist forces and figures, will result in a stricter interpretation of Article 54, likely without banning existing Islamist parties.
But the programmes and activities of these parties will be subject to a firmer control. The problem will remain, however, as recent experience has shown that, despite assurances about their civil nature, Islamist parties use religion in their propaganda and political action.