Egypt's political forces battle for constitution and identity

Zeinab El Gundy, Monday 22 Aug 2011

With the deputy prime minister's announcement of new guiding constitutional principles, the old argument between Islamists and liberal forces has reemerged, pitting the former against the ruling military council

Egyptian voters
Egyptian voters casts their votes in a polling station in Cairo (Photo: AP)

Last March, Egypt was seriously polarised over whether to amend the 1971 Constitution or to scrap it and draft a completely new document.

In recent weeks, a new debate over ‘constitution’ is raising the level of heat in all quarters.

This time, various political parties and forces are warring not about the need for a new constitution but questions such as ‘supra-constitutional principles’ and a ‘constitutional declaration’ that will be issued by the ruling military council ahead of upcoming elections.

The latest debate exploded when Deputy Prime Minister Ali El-Salmi announced that the cabinet would issue a new ‘basic guiding principles for a constitution’ document in the next couple of weeks.

The proposed document consists of 21 articles dealing with general principles in a future constitution – mainly related to questions of basic civil freedoms and rights.

The 'guiding principles’, known as the supra-constitutional principles, are essentially a compilation of all principles proposed by different political groups in recent months.

According to El-Salmi, the document would include criteria for choosing members of the provisional committee in charge of drafting the new constitution.

El-Salmi said that the government would issue such a constitutional declaration only if, and when, political parties agree on its contents. 

Thus far, several liberal, leftist and nationalist parties political parties have announced their support for El-Salmi's proposals. However, some Islamist groups have taken a firm stance against them.

These Islamists have maintained their opposition to any supra-constitutional principles, insisting instead on respect for results of last March's constitutional referendum and the constitutional declaration that the ruling military council issued soon after.

Moreover, some Islamists, such as the conservative Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya (the Islamic Group), have threatened to hold “not so peaceful” protests across the country, both against the ‘constitution guidelines’ and the upcoming declaration.

Salafist groups such as Al-Dawaa Al-Salafiya (The Salafist Call) have also spoken out against the supra-constitutional principles as well as the idea of 'guiding principles'. Some Salafists have even organised protests against El-Salmi for after Ramadan's Taraweeh (post-Iftar) prayers in recent days.

However, Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya has expressed its tentative support for the document that Al-Azhar – the highest religious authority in the country – issued as a proposal for guidelines for a new constitution two months ago.

Al-Ahzar’s document consists of 11 articles, which deal with issues of equal citizenship rights as well as cultural and religious identity questions. The document has received the blessing of many political forces from the left and right along with a number of potential presidential candidates.

Many Islamist political forces had initially expressed their complete opposition to Al-Azhar’s document.

Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya, for example, based its opposition on the fact that the people had no direct or indirect role in determining how the process of writing the constitution could evolve.

The position of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is somewhat more complicated than that of Al-Jamaa.

On the one hand, both the Brotherhood and its party declared their rejection of the government’s supra-constitutional principles document.

Saad El-Katatne, general secretary of the FJP, threatened that the Brotherhood would “protest in all squares against the supra-constitutional principles as the FJP refuses any attempt to rob the public of the rights which they gained in the revolution.”

On the other hand, however, the party participated, along with its electoral partners in the Democratic Alliance for Egypt, in drafting El-Salmi’s document.

Thirty four parties in the alliance including the Wafd and the Tagammu support the government’s document.

However, the Brotherhood seems to have taken a rather ambiguous middle ground on the constitution debate.

On the one hand, it accepts “basic principles of the constitution” put forward by the deputy prime minister. The Brotherhood, though, rejects any talk of supra-constitution principles as well as any new constitutional declaration by the ruling military council ahead of the elections.

"We are against the fact that anything would be imposed on the people by anyone, no matter how sincere the proposed document might be," says Essam El-Erian, a prominent Brotherhood leader.

Despite its own rejection of supra-constitutional principles, the Al-Wasat Party, a 10-year-old liberal split from the Brotherhood, is working with a number of political parties to search for a middle ground.

Al-Wasat accepts the government’s argument that a set of obligatory constitutional guidelines is needed, but it wants these to be consistent with the March referendum’s results. The party also wants to safeguard against the possibility that an elected majority in a new parliament could monopolise the process of drafting the constitution.

Meanwhile, the Al-Wasat Party reached an agreement with a number of liberal and Islamist parties, including Salafists, on a statement made of five principles related to the cultural identity of the Egyptian state as well as citizenship rights and freedoms.

Many political experts believe that this debate could be a turning point in the relations between the Islamist forces and the ruling military council. Thus far, Islamist parties have been the biggest backers of the council's policies, after being denied their political rights for decades. 

Islamist qualms with the upcoming constitution declaration or the proposed constitution guidelines are not only related to the fact that people will not be allowed to vote on the document. Some Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated FJP, have also objected to the use of the term "civil state" in drafts of different constitutional proposals. Fearing the formation of a state based on "secularist" principles, the Brotherhood has demanded that all mention of "civil state" be changed to "democratic."

Similarly, the Salafist Nour Party spokesperson Mohamed Yousri publicly denounced any use of the term “civil state,” and charged that it was a term that only applied in western societies.

Some radical Islamists go further by saying that there should be no governing constitution except the Islamic Sharia, despite the fact that in all the proposed supra-constitutional principles and constitutional declarations Islamic Sharia figures as the main source of legislation.

The Salafist Front, for example, has already issued a statement on its website attacking the Cabinet and Deputy Prime Minister El-Salmi, describing the latter as “the enemy of our Islamic identity.”

Among other points of conflict between Islamists and the military council is the position of the army in regards to the civility of the state and the constitution.

Some liberal and nationalist forces have hinted at giving the army powers to be the guarantor of the state’s civil foundation in an attempt to prevent the Islamists from using their potential majority vote in Parliament to turn Egypt into a theocratic country one

However, Islamists are not the only ones concerned with any such possible extensive powers for the army. Some liberals and leftists are also concerned that the army’s involvement in political life could create a scenario similar to that in Turkey.

In any case, the talk about the supra-constitutional principles and guidelines documents will not resolve itself until something is officially issued, whether a constitutional declaration, supra-constitutional principles document or parliamentary elections.

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