Salafists battle for a religious state in Egypt

Gamal Essam El-Din , Thursday 12 Jul 2012

The Constituent Assembly has gone a long way in writing Egypt’s new constitution, but several contentious issues remain on the table

New constitution
New constitution (Photo: AP)

Ultraconservative Salafists have stepped up efforts aimed at imposing their radical brand of Islam on Egypt's new constitution. The two Salafist parties, El-Nour Party and Asala, have exploited their membership of the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution to battle hard to change the first three articles of 1971 constitution. They were successful with the first article, but lost with the second and third articles under pressure of the prestigious and moderate Sunni Islam Al-Azhar institution and liberal forces.

On Article 1, the assembly’s Basic Components Committee approved the request of Salafists to add the word “consultative” (a literal translation of the Islamic word "shura") to the article. Mohamed Emara, an Islamist thinker and chairman of the committee, said the article now reads: “The Arab Republic of Egypt is democratic, consultative, constitutional and modernised; based on the separation of powers and the principle of citizenship.” It adds that, “Egypt is part of the Arab and Islamic nation, with strong ties to the African Continent.”

This differs from the text of the 1971 constitution where Article 1 states that "The Arab Republic of Egypt is a democratic state based on citizenship. The Egyptian people are part of the Arab nation and work for the realisation of its comprehensive unity.”

The addition of the word “consultative” or (“shura"), said Emara, was proposed by the Salafist El-Nour Party because the word “shura” is contained in the Quran, the holy book of Muslims. “Shura means democratic in the sense that rulers should listen to representatives of the nation and always keep in consultation with them before deciding on major issues,” said Emara.

In 1980, in a bid to curry favour with Salafists and other Islamist conservative groups who fiercely objected to the signing of a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, late President Anwar El-Sadat decided to create a “Shura Council” and change Article 2 of the constitution to state that “The principles of Islamic Sharia (code of laws) form the major source of legislation in Egypt.”

The Salafists’ battle to changing  articles 2 and 3 of the 1971 constitution has been fierce. Salafists insisted on removing the word “principles” from Article 2 on the grounds that it gives reason for judges to circumvent implementing Islamic Sharia law. They also believe that Sharia law, not its principles, should be the main source of legislation to ensure that the hudood, or the ordinances of God — such stoning non-believes and amputating the hands of thieves — be applied. The imposition of hudood, according to most Islamist conservative forces, is a necessity so that Egypt does not become a secular state and that it is committed to implementing God’s laws.

Adel Afifi, chairman of the Salafist Asala (Fundamentalist) Party, said Salafists wanted the article to bluntly state that “Islamic Sharia is the major source of legislation in Egypt.” According to Afifi, “it would be haram (forbidden by Islam) to vote on a constitution stating that Egypt adopts the principles of Sharia."

The Salafist party used its members in the Constituent Assembly to insist that if the word "principles" is added, it should be followed by words stating that "legislators should refer to Islam’s four schools of jurisprudence at times of drafting laws.” The Salafist party attacked Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, accusing him of adopting a negative position towards Sharia, stating he is not serious about applying “God’s laws.”

After much deliberation, Al-Tayeb, the highest authority on Sunni Islam, said the principles of Islamic Sharia must remain the major source of legislation in Egypt's new constitution. He added that Article 2 of the 1971 constitution must remain unchanged and that any laws that violate the principles of Sharia in Article 2 must be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC).

Joining forces, secular and liberal parties have insisted that the article remains unchanged to preserve the civil nature of the Egyptian state. Muslim Brotherhood members said they do not see a strong reason for changing Article 2 of the 1971 constitution.

The text of Article 2 now reads: “Islam is the religion of the state; Arabic is the official religion of the state; and principles of Islamic Sharia are the major source of legislation.” It also adds: “Al-Azhar is the major reference on interpreting the principles of Islamic Sharia and that non-Muslims, especially the followers of Christianity and Judaism, should refer to their religions on personal matters, religious affairs, and the selection of their religious leaders.”

On Article 3, it currently states: “Sovereignty is for the people alone and they are the source of authority. The people shall exercise and protect this sovereignty, and safeguard national unity in the manner specified in the Constitution.” The Salafists want to change one aspect. They want to remove the phrase “the people” in the second sentence and replace it with “God,” to be: “Sovereignty is for God and it is the source of authority.”  

Secularists reject this as the foundation of a theocratic state. Sobhi Salah, a Muslim Brotherhood lawyer, said he does not see a necessity for changing Article 3 to satisfy the Salafists. “It is quite enough that Article 2 states that 'Islam is the official religion of the state' and this means that 'sovereignty is for God.'”

Wahid Abdel-Meguid, a liberal member of the assembly, begs to differ, insisting that, “Sovereignty for God means that we would have religious people to govern in the name of God.”

Abdel-Meguid indicated that the assembly’s five committees have gone a long way in drafting the new constitution of Egypt. “They would meet again on 15 July to complete their job and refer the initial draft of the constitution to the Constituent Assembly to be discussed in its meeting scheduled 18 July,” he said.

Abdel-Meguid indicated that the assembly includes five committees (Basic Components; Systems of Government; Rights and Liberties and Public Duties; Supervisory Agencies; and Proposals, Dialogue and Communication). “Each committee is entrusted with drafting a certain chapter of the constitution while reviewing proposals submitted to the Dialogue Committee,” he said.

Abdel-Meguid also explained that the Systems of Government Committee formed five sub-committees dealing with the new constitution’s chapters on executive authority, local administration, the legislative authority, the judicial authority, and national defence.

He added that most of the texts formulated by committees gained broad consensus from all political currents and there is much progress in writing the remaining texts of the new constitution. According to Abdel-Meguid, “Unlike what the media covered, the text on Article 2 gained sweeping consensus, with most members agreeing that Al-Azhar must remain the sole reference on Islamic Sharia.”

Abdel-Meguid indicated that the Supervisory Agencies Committee achieved great progress by underlining that several economic and political institutions must be independent of any official control in order not to be toys in the hands of changing governments. “These include the Central Bank of Egypt; the Central Auditing Agency; the National Council for Human Rights and Citizenship; the National Media Council; the National Commission on Fighting Corruption; and the Higher Election Commission.”

Abdel-Meguid also disclosed that the Proposals, Dialogue and Communication Committee made intensive contacts with several groups, such as the revolutionary youth movements, university students, professional syndicates and provincial governorates, to explore their views about the new constitution.

The meeting of the committees 15 July will come just two days before Cairo’s Administrative Court is scheduled to rule on appeals filed against the Constituent Assembly. If the court decides to invalidate the assembly, a new one would be formed, this time by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in accordance with the 17 June addendum to the Constitutional Declaration. Several secular forces decided to boycott the assembly’s meetings until the court gives a final say on appeals.

Abdel Meguid concluded by indicating that a meeting of the assembly’s executive board would be held on Sunday to review reports prepared by the different committees on their progress in drafting articles of the new constitution.

He said the committee tasked with the wording of the constitution as a whole will be formed during the assembly’s meeting on Wednesday 18 July.


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