Egypt's Islamist, 'civil' forces still locking horns over draft constitution

Gamal Essam El-Din, Friday 9 Nov 2012

With only weeks to go before draft charter is put before public referendum, Egypt's Islamist and secularist forces still appear to be miles from reaching consensus

Time runs short for Egypt’s new constitution
File photo: A general view of the two chambers of parliament meeting to elect the 100 members of the constituent assembly in Cairo June 12, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

Attempts to reach consensus on Egypt's draft constitution have once again proven elusive this week.  Secular forces – Egypt's liberals and leftists – issued a statement on Wednesday, threatening  to withdraw from the Constituent Assembly, the 100-member body tasked with drafting a new national charter, unless Islamist members stop using their majority to impose their  ideology and agenda on the draft constitution.

The threat erupted on 8 November after Islamists – especially those belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – issued a flurry of announcements affirming that 95 per cent of the draft constitutional articles had been agreed upon by assembly members. Islamist members also asserted that the draft constitution would be finalised next week.

Joining forces with Islamists, assembly chairman Hossam El-Ghiryani conceded that "time is running out and we should begin an article-by-article discussion of the final draft of the constitution next Sunday."  El-Ghiryani asked members to submit their proposed articles in written form "so that we do not waste time in verbal discussions and wrap up the final draft by the end of next week."

Accordingly, each proposed amendment will be read out and, if it wins a majority, it will be adopted. If rejected, the original draft will be retained. Each article should first gain the support of 67 members, and, if not, it should gain the support of 57 members. This ensures that Islamists and their sympathisers will have the upper hand in imposing their desired amendments on the draft constitution. 

According to Sobhi Saleh, a brotherhood lawyer and assembly member, "discussion of and voting on the draft constitution should last no more than two weeks, after which the draft will be put before a national referendum."

Essam El-Erian, another FJP senior official, joined the fray, asserting that "more than 95 per cent of the constitutional articles have found consensus; the Egyptian people will see this next week when voting on the articles begins."

Mohamed El-Beltagi, FJP firebrand and chairman of the Constituent Assembly's proposals committee, went so far as to accuse "those who spread lies about the draft constitution" of "trying to frustrate the Egyptian public."

Meanwhile, a group of Islamist forces plan to stage demonstrations on Friday, where they will accuse their secularist counterparts of trying to undermine Egypt's Islamic identity in the new constitution.

As expected, the Islamist announcements triggered a wave of protests from the liberal and leftist camp, which strongly objected to the draft being discussed within only one or two weeks. Secularists, led by former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa, also strongly refuted Islamist allegations that assembly members had reached consensus on "95 per cent" of the draft articles.

On 7 November, Moussa submitted a document containing amendments of some 200 draft articles. "These amendments, which express the viewpoint of civil [i.e., non-religious] forces, show that consensus has not been reached on 95 per cent of the draft articles."

Moussa went on to say that the amendments introduced by "civil" forces should be discussed next Sunday. "Those who say that the matter should take no more than two weeks should know that drafting the constitution is a national issue and must be handled with the utmost care and seriousness while being debated," he said.

Moussa also warned against "those who want to exploit their majority to impose their agenda," insisting that "they should know that when it comes to passing the constitution, it should be a matter of consensus rather than mere majority."

On 8 November, Moussa announced that some 30 mostly liberal and leftist assembly members were on the verge of withdrawing from the assembly. "If things were left to go according to the agenda and schedule of the Islamists next Sunday, we will certainly withdraw from the assembly," he declared. He went on to accuse the assembly's leadership of drawing up the schedule for next week's discussions "without consulting us and even behind our backs."

The roughly 30 members mulling a walkout include political analysts Wahid Abdel-Meguid and Manar El-Shorbagi; political and law professors Gaber Nassar, Souad Rizk and Abdel-Gelil Moustafa; political activists Ayman Nour, Anwar El-Sadat and Salah Hassaballah; and former Wafdist MPs Mohamed Dawoud, Fouad Badrawi and Ibrahim Kamel.

In a statement issued to the Egyptian nation on 8 November, secularist assembly members declared: "The constitution is not the private property of a single group or a political party, but a national charter for all Egyptians and should therefore reflect the viewpoints of all political factions."

Ideological differences between secular and Islamist forces also hit a new low this week, with Islamists – led by the ultra-conservative Salafist parties – pressing hard for a new article about Islamic Law.

Younis Makyoun, a member of the Salafist Nour Party, told Ahram Online that "we dropped our request that the 1971 constitution's version of Article 2 be amended in favour of a new article laying down the sources of Islamic Law. "This article states that the principles of Islamic Law should be interpreted according to the holy Quran, the traditions (sunna) of Prophet Mohamed, and the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence," said Makyoun.

He also surprised all on 7 November by alleging that the warring camps had settled their differences over article 86, which makes gender equality conditional on Islamic Law. "We decided to eliminate this article altogether," said Makhyoun.

Liberal and leftist assembly members, however, insist that they rejected the proposed new article about Islamic Law. Moussa's list of desired amendments requests that the 1971 version of Article 2 – which asserts that "Principles of Islamic Law are the main source of legislation in Egypt" – be retained.

Abdel-Meguid, meanwhile, also asserted that "several articles under the chapter devoted to freedoms and rights violate press freedoms," adding that this "is something we cannot accept."  He went on to note that "amendments of these articles were introduced by civil forces."

What's more, there is a massive gulf between the two camps over articles regulating the performance of the president of the republic.

"It is deplorable that several articles of the draft constitution were tailored by the Islamist majority – especially Muslim Brotherhood members – to give the president sweeping powers," Anwar El-Sadat, chairman of the liberal Reform and Development Party, told Ahram Online. "The draft constitution gives the president an upper hand over the army, police and watchdog institutions – not to mention that he [the president] is the primary architect of internal and foreign policy."

El-Sadat also lamented the fact that Article 227 of the draft constitution was clearly tailored to give the president control over the selection of the country's prosecutor-general. "We must see this in light of the fact that the prosecutor-general recently stood up to President Morsi by refusing to vacate his post despite a presidential order to this effect," he said.

The two camps also differed over the article giving the president the right to dissolve parliament if the move is approved via public referendum. While liberals and leftists want to add the stipulation that "if the people vote yes, the president should submit his resignation," the Islamist camp rejects this stipulation.

The Islamist camp also rejected a proposed article stipulating that the chief executive appoint a vice president, and the draft constitution lacks any article that mentions a vice president. Salah Hassaballah, a liberal member of the assembly, told Ahram Online that "former president Mubarak refused to appoint a vice president and it seems that the Islamist president has taken the same position, with both insisting on keeping all the power in their hands."

Meanwhile, a number of judicial authorities, too, voiced their objections to several articles of the draft constitution this week. In a statement issued on 6 November, Egypt's Higher Judicial Council said that most of the articles in the chapter devoted to system of governance serve to strip the judicial authorities of their independence and powers. Shortly before this, the High Constitutional Court had complained that the draft charter stripped it of its powers and independence and put the selection of its judges at the mercy of the president.

In reaction, El-Ghiryani asked Monsif Soliman, a Coptic member of the assembly, to make a complete review of the draft articles devoted to regulating judicial authorities.

Liberal and leftist assembly members also objected that the draft constitution retained the Shura Council – the upper, consultative house of Egypt's parliament – the name of which will be changed to "the Senate." They say the council will only serve the interests of the Islamists and cement Islamist hegemony over parliamentary life.

Secular-minded assembly members also objected to articles regulating the role of Egypt's military, arguing that the draft constitution does not impose any kind of oversight on the army.

The Constitutional Declaration issued by Egypt's then-ruling military council in the wake of last year's revolution called for a new constitution to be drafted within six months, no later than 12 December 2011.

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