Egypt's draft constitution unveiled amid political divisions

Gamal Essam El-Din , Thursday 11 Oct 2012

Ideological differences continue to dog Constituent Assembly as first incomplete draft of national charter is official released

A general view of the two chambers of parliament meeting to elect the 100 members of the constituent assembly in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

The Constituent Assembly released an early incomplete draft of Egypt's constitution for public discussion on Wednesday as it rebutted growing criticism by secularists, liberals and Salafists.

Mohamed El-Beltagi, a leading member of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and chairman of the assembly’s Proposals Committee, said: "The draft is incomplete because it does not include chapters on judicial authority and another regulating the relationship between the state and armed forces.”

“Egyptians will be required to vote on the constitution as a whole – not on an article by article basis – in a yes-or-no public referendum,” he added at a press conference launching the draft.

A “Know Your Constitution” publicity campaign will be launched on Thursday, he said.

Gamal Gibriel, chairman of the assembly’s System of Governance committee, said: “Members of the assembly agreed that a mixed parliamentary-presidential system is the best for Egypt at the moment... Egypt is still not ripe or qualified for a parliamentary system and it is better for the moment to have a mixed system where the president and prime minister share powers.”

The bicameral system would be maintained, Gibriel added, with the People's Assembly being renamed the House of Representatives and the Shura Council becoming the Senate.

The House will act as the main watchdog over the government, while the Senate will have legislative and supervisory powers but will not have the right to discuss the state budget or fire the prime minister, he said.

The draft maintains Article 2 of the 1971 constitution regarding the status of Islamic Sharia law. The article states that the "principles" of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation in Egypt. Ultraconservative Salafists had been calling for Sharia law to play a more prominent role.

The draft does not provide any role for Al-Azhar as a reference on Islamic Sharia despite strong pressure from Salafists.

The draft does not include any mention of reserving 50 per cent of seats in parliament for workers and farmers as was the case in the 1971 constitution. However, Gibriel said this did not mean the article had been deleted; rather that it was still a matter for public debate.

The assembly would complete its activities by 12 December or as stipulated by President Morsi's constitutional declaration on 12 August, El-Beltagi said, and in the meantime he hoped for a thorough public debate on the draft constitution.

The drafting process has been criticised in the media and lawsuits have been brought claiming the assembly itself should dissolved because it was formed in an unconstitutional way.

El-Beltagi’s words also came against the backdrop of a hostile press campaign and protests against various articles of the draft charter.

Members of two judicial authorities – the Administrative Prosecution and the State Cases Authority – began a strike on Monday against what they described as “attempts by the assembly’s chairman Hossam El-Ghiryani to strip them of judicial powers.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said the draft constitution does not do enough to protect basic human rights.

“The draft provides for some basic political and economic rights but falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and, surprisingly, torture and trafficking,” it said in an open letter on 8 October.

“Article 36 of the draft constitution," the letter went on, "threatens equality between men and women by saying that the state shall ensure equality between men and women as long as it does not conflict with “the rulings of Islamic Sharia” and goes on to say that the state shall ensure that a woman will “reconcile between her duties toward the family and her work in society.” 

HRW also said the draft constitution was discriminatory against non-Abrahamic religions, such as Baha'is, and imposes restrictions on freedom of speech by banning other interpretations of religious matters.

In response, Mohamed El-Sawi of the assembly’s Freedoms and Rights Committee accused HWR of meddling in Egypt's internal affairs.

“HWR wants to impose its positions on us and we will never accept such a flagrant intervention in our own affairs,” said El-Sawi.

Ideological divisions between secular and Islamist members of the assembly reached a crescendo on Monday, preventing consensus on several articles, such as the electoral system.

Most secularist on the assembly argued that President Morsi should not have the final say on the electoral system to be used at upcoming parliamentary polls.

“Morsi was granted this right by the constitutional declaration he issued on 12 August, but he should not exercise it,” said Maher Abdel-Fattah of the liberal Democratic Front party. “If President Morsi imposes a certain electoral system on the parliamentary polls, it would mean we are back to Mubarak-style authoritarian rule.”

There were calls for the electoral system that receives the most support from political parties to be used during the transitional period.

Some political groups have proposed a full party list electoral system be written into the charter because it would reduce the influence of familial and tribal connections. While the FJP has said it supports a mixed system of party lists and independent candidates.

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