The Nour Party: The Salafist view of Egypt's draft constitution

Sarah El-Rashidi, Sunday 18 Nov 2012

Egypt's leading Salafist party voices reservations about draft constitution, but is ready to compromise on certain articles given tight deadline for charter's completion

In advance of a final verdict on the constitutionality of Egypt's Constituent Assembly, tasked with drafting Egypt's post-revolution national charter, the Salafist Nour Party has voiced its discomfort with the latest version of the assembly's draft.

Nevertheless, the party appears to have accepted the current version given the encroaching deadline for the document's completion.

"The Nour Party isn't saying yes or no to the draft constitution, nor is it trying to prevent its passage. It's simply trying to ensure that Egypt's identity and culture aren't lost," Amr Faroul El Gowal, member of the party's Supreme Committee, told Ahram Online, referring to the draft of Article 10, devoted to safeguarding traditional values.

This notion was reaffirmed by Nour Party spokesman Nader Bakkar, who emphasised the party's general satisfaction with most of the draft articles while highlighting some outstanding bones of contention.    

The role of Sharia

The main concern among Nour Party members pertains to the role of Islamic Law in the constitution, although Bakkar maintains that the current draft charter does, in fact, comply with Islamic Law. "Article 221 of the current draft constitution calls for the application of Islamic Law," he said. 

Bakkar's approval of Article 221 lies in the article's definition of Sharia, which strictly adheres to the Sunni-Muslim interpretation of Islamic Law. 

Article 221 of the draft charter states that the term "principles of Islamic Sharia" – mentioned in Article 2 of the constitution as the "main source of legislation" – essentially refers to the Islamic jurisprudence followed by the four main schools of Sunni Islam. The newly proposed article would thus allow for a wider application than before of Islamic jurisprudence. 

Notably, not all party members and supporters share this opinion. El Gowal, for his part, criticised the draft charter's definition of Sharia for being "too vague," complaining that all members of the Constituent Assembly had asserted their rights except for the Salafists.

"This article needs more clarification, but at least it's something we can work with," said Nour Party supporter and assembly member Sheikh Mohamed Saad El-Azhari, a member of Egypt's Salafist Calling known for his controversial views concerning the legal age for female marriage.

Executive power

Presidential authority, which the party says has been significantly augmented in the new draft charter, is another principal item of concern. 

Bakkar says the charter gives President Mohamed Morsi the upper hand vis-à-vis the People's Assembly, the lower, legislative house of Egypt's parliament. While the party claims to support Morsi's ideology for the most part, it nonetheless wants to prevent him from assuming increased legislative powers, which, it fears, could lead to another dictatorship.

"In the long term, the only way to protect Egyptians from political monopoly is through Sharia," El-Meky stressed. He went on to voice apprehension regarding presidential and prime ministerial powers, noting that it remained unclear exactly who had the power to, for example, appoint government ministers.  

Political decentralisation

On the issue of political decentralization, by which the public and their elected representatives are granted a larger role in decision-making, the Nour Party recently communicated its reservations at a conference hosted by the American University in Cairo.

"I fear a dramatic shift from extreme centralisation to decentralisation will be very problematic and I oppose it," Abdel-Azim Mahmoud, chairman of the party's local development and human resources committee in the Shura Council, said.

Accordingly, the Nour Party has raised its concerns with the Constituent Assembly regarding Article 192, which deals with the full or partial financial decentralisationof Egypt's governorates. This would authorise local government – rather than the central government – to allocate funds for the community. Critics, however, fear that this could lead to the inequitable distribution of funds.

Another issue concerns Article 186, and whether decision-making should be centralised or decentralised to empower local officials to make decisions on behalf of their governorates. This would entail dividing the state into administrative units (cities, governorates and villages), an idea that Mahmoud says is supported by the military. Some critics question, however, whether the wider populace is ready for this degree of autonomy.

Human rights and role of Egypt's Al-Azhar, military

The issue of human rights in the draft constitution – discussed in part II of the charter, articles 28 to 79 – is another matter of importance to the Salafist party and its adherents, given the discrimination they have faced in the past. Many Salafists criticise the current draft, asserting that only the application of Sharia would ensure that human rights are protected.

"Sharia protects and gives minorities their rights more than the current draft charter," said El Gowal.

Other issues of concern to El-Azhari involve Article 4 of the draft charter and the independence of Egypt's Al-Azhar, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni-Muslim world. El-Azhari, for his part, is adamant that Al-Azhar remain a non-political institution.

Similarly, in relation to Article 197, the cleric stressed the need for the constitution to guarantee the autonomous nature of the selection process for the post of Defence Minister. He maintains that the Defence Minister does not necessarily have to be drawn from Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Party reactions

Given the numerous reservations articulated by the Nour Party about the draft constitution, many wonder how the party will react in the event that the current draft is approved via popular referendum.  

If the party mobilises its followers against the present draft, it insists that all demonstrations will be peaceful in nature. Nevertheless, the party maintains that it has no clear-cut response planned, despite claims to have already prepared its own draft. Rather, it has declared that it would leave any reaction to the new constitution to the will of the people.

"We're running out of time. We must move on for the sake of the country. Once the draft is passed, we can start our work on the ground," said El-Azhari.

Notably, once the Constituent Assembly approves the final draft in December – and once the public votes to either approve or reject the charter – no court will be able to appeal the decision, say legal experts.

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