Political players jockey for influence over new constitution

Gamal Essam El-Din , Monday 12 Mar 2012

As all eyes turn to Egypt's looming presidential contest, political forces also jockey for influence over country's first post-revolution national charter

One of the main tasks of Egypt's post-Mubarak elected Upper House of parliament will be to preside over the constitution-drafting process (Photo: State television snapshot)

By 8 March, a total of 353 proposals for the formation of the 100-member constituent assembly – which will be tasked with drafting Egypt's new constitution – had been received by the parliamentary committee charged with overseeing the process. The committee includes 25 officials drawn from the general secretariats of the People's Assembly and Shura Council, the lower and upper houses of Egypt's parliament. The job of committee members is to classify all proposals before they are passed on to two joint meetings of the two houses of parliament, slated for 17 and 24 March.

On Saturday, the general committees of the two houses of parliament met to review a 22-page report on proposals prepared by the parliamentary committee. People's Assembly Speaker Saad El-Katatni told the attendees that 339 of the 353 proposals submitted had recommended that the 100-member assembly include a mix of both parliamentarians and non-parliamentarians. 

"Twenty-seven proposals said the assembly should include parliamentarians only, while only nine said that parliamentarians should not be included,” the report noted. “According to the majority of proposals, the formation of the 100-member constituent assembly should include both parliamentarians and non-parliamentarians.”

The report said that out of 339 proposals in favour of entrusting parliamentarians and non-parliamentarians with drafting the constitution, 119 called for limiting the number of MPs in the committee to between 30 and 40 per cent (20 or 30 members from the People's Assembly and 10 or 20 from the Shura Council).

El-Katatni said that most proposals had asserted that the remaining 60-70 per cent should include representatives from political parties; universities; Islamic and Christian institutions; labour unions and syndicates; civil society organisations; and human rights organisations.

The parliamentary speaker added that these proposals further recommended that the 100-member assembly include prominent public figures; representatives of the interior ministry and the armed forces; Coptic Christians; farmers; constitutional law professors; pensioners; Egyptians living abroad; handicapped people; young people; women; and other segments of society.

The report also noted that the 353 proposals had been submitted by MPs (140); ordinary citizens (129); non-governmental organisations (30); political parties (19); labour unions and professional syndicates (15); government institutions and organisations (14); and independent unions and movements (6).

The proposals were not confined solely to the formation of the constituent assembly. They also covered the conditions and instruments necessary for electing assembly members. Most proposals stated that assembly members should be born to two Egyptians parents; be between 40 and 60 years of age; have a proven record in political activity; not have been a member of ousted president Hosni Mubarak's now-defunct National Democratic Party; be fluent in Arabic and another foreign language; and support the ideals of Egypt's January 25 Revolution.

On 17 March, the two houses of parliament will meet to review all proposals. On 24 March, they will vote on the regulations to be adopted for the formation of the constituent assembly.

The above developments came after 678 elected deputies from both houses held a joint meeting in which representatives of 24 political parties submitted proposals on who should have the right to join the assembly.

Differences emerged between Islamist parties over the make-up of the assembly. They agreed, however, that parliamentarians should account for the majority of assembly members.

Hussein Ibrahim, parliamentary spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, proposed that Egypt's first post-revolution constitution be drawn up by 40 elected parliamentarians and 60 non-parliamentarians.

The Wasat Party, a Brotherhood offshoot, believes that professionalism should be the main consideration when drawing up an assembly reflective of Egypt's political and cultural diversity.

The ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party, meanwhile, wants the assembly to include 60 parliamentarians and 40 non-parliamentarians. This proportion was agreed to by the Salafist Asala Party.

The Construction and Development Party (the political wing of Egypt's Gamaa Al-Islamiya), for its part, wants the assembly to include 70 parliamentarians and 30 non-parliamentarians.

The FJP proposal has garnered support from some secular parties. MP Mostafa El-Naggar, chairman of the centrist Adl Party, along with Al-Ahram political analyst Wahid Abdel-Meguid, have described the FJP proposal as "balanced" and one that "allows all sectors of society to join the constituent assembly.”

The FJP proposal did not go down well with other secular parties and figures, however. The latter generally favour a small number of MPs and a large number of non-parliamentarians. This clearly reflects fears among most secular parties that Egypt's Islamist-dominated parliament will have the upper hand in the constituent assembly, which it could exploit to draft an Islamist-inspired national charter.

The liberal Free Egyptians Party, meanwhile, founded by Coptic businessman Naguib Sawiris, called to limit the number of MPs in the 100-member assembly to 20. “And the 80 non-parliamentarians should include ten women, ten Coptic Christians and ten prominent public figures,” said party chairman Ahmed Said.

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party, for its part, proposed the inclusion of 25 elected deputies in the assembly and 75 from outside parliament. “Non-parliamentarians should include 15 public figures, mostly constitutional law experts; 13 academic figures; ten judicial figures; 23 figures from labour unions and syndicates; eight figures representing Al-Azhar and Christian churches; and six figures representing the people of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Nubia, the oases, and Egyptian expatriates living abroad," said Ziad Bahaeddin, the head of the party's parliementary bloc.

As for the liberal-oriented Wafd Party, it wants the assembly to include 30 elected MPs – 20 from the People's Assembly and ten from the Shura Council. The remaining 70 non-parliamentarians in the assembly, according to Wafd Party Deputy Chairman Fouad Badrawi, should include constitutional law professors, judicial officials, religious personalities, representatives of human rights and civil society organisations, and Egyptian Nobel Prize winners such as Ahmed Zuweil and Mohamed ElBaradei.

The leftist Tagammu Party, meanwhile, called for the assembly not to include any sitting MPs whatsoever. “The inclusion of parliamentarians in this assembly contradicts the constitution,” said Tagammu spokesman Nabil Zaki.

Like the liberal Free Egyptians party, the leftist Popular Socialist Alliance believes the assembly should include only 20 elected MPs, while remaining members should represent all sectors of Egyptian society.

High-profile institutions, such as the state-run National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), have adopted a secular view. According to NCHR Deputy Chairman Mohamed Fayek, the council favours allocating 21 per cent of the 100-member assembly to elected MPs. “Meanwhile, 27 per cent could be allocated to representatives of the executive and judicial branches, with the rest representing different social segments,” Fayek said.

But the considerable gap between Islamist and secular forces over the formation of the constituent assembly is not as big a worry as the formidable task of drafting the constitution itself. Assembly members will have to face a number of thorny issues, not least of which will be determining the role of the military in the coming period.

Will Egypt’s ruling generals allow the army to be stripped of its long-entrenched economic and political benefits? There is also the question of how exactly the military budget will be discussed and overseen. There have already been reports that the military's advisory council has drafted an army-friendly constitution that it plans to force on the constituent assembly.

Equally controversial is the spectre of an Islamist-forged national charter. The Nour Party, for one, has voiced objections not only to the word "secular" being included in the new constitution, but also to any mention of Egypt being a "civil" state, on the grounds that this reflects Western liberal – as opposed to Islamic – values. This could be the reason why the Nour Party wants the assembly to include 60 parliamentarians and only 40 members from outside parliament.

Needless to say, all Islamist parties agree that Article 2 of the previous constitution – which states that Islamic Law should represent a "main source of legislation" – should be kept as is.

Islamists also want the new constitution to do away with the longstanding practice of allocating half of the seats in parliament to farmers' and labourers' representatives. Notably, liberals also want to see the end of this practice, which they view as a holdover from 1960s-era socialism.

But leftists, for their part, reject the notion of abolishing the tradition, since this will bring farmers and labourers under the yoke of the rich elite again and cost them their say in politics, as many argue.

Just how Egypt's next constitution will strike a balance between the country's executive, judicial and legislative branches also remains a highly controversial issue. While most elected MPs believe the president's powers should be curtailed, a number of presidential hopefuls have warned that such a move could reduce the office of the presidency to a powerless figurehead.

Many MPs also caution that the new constitution should not be written in haste. “We should use all six months allowed by the constitutional declaration [issued in March of last year by the ruling military council] to draft the new constitution before putting it before a popular referendum," said MP Seif Rashad of the Union party

Once the constituent assembly is formed, it will be split up into different groups, each of which will be tasked with drafting different sections of the constitution. For instance, one group will be entrusted with drafting the section on rights and liberties.

Many observers, such as constitutional law professor and advisory council member Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, believe that most sections of Egypt's 1971 constitution can be left intact “since they reflect and promote democratic values.”

“The least acceptable sections deal with the powers accruing to the presidency, parliament and the army,” added Abul-Magd, who is also the author of a book on the US Constitution. "And these issues will take some time to resolve."

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