The constitution-drafting assembly faces fatal threats

Gamal Essam El-Din , Monday 19 Nov 2012

The withdrawal of a third of the members from the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly throws the future of the constitution-writing body into question

File Photo: Moussa, Nour, Church representatives in Assembly sessions (Photo: Ahram Archives)

Months-old internal divisions and ideological disagreements among the 100-member Constituent Assembly – the body tasked with writing Egypt’s new constitution – have reached a crescendo on Sunday as more than 30 non-Islamist members have decided to withdraw from the Assembly’s ranks, accusing representatives of Islamist forces of doing their best to draft a constitution aimed at turning Egypt into a radical Islamist state.

Those who quit the assembly, including former presidential candidate Amr Moussa, also accused chairman of the assembly Hossam El-Ghiryani of “speeding up the process of finalising the draft constitution without enough or serious debate.”

The first batch of withdrawals began last week when around 25 members – mostly liberals and leftists – announced that they would suspend their activities in the Assembly followed by a decision on 18 November to officially withdraw from its ranks declaring “they lost any hope that the draft constitution gains consensus of all political forces or reflects Egypt’s aspirations for building a functioning civilian democracy.”

The biggest blow to the Assembly came on 17 November when representatives of Egypt’sOrthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches decided to join withdrawals.

The Church’s move was bolstered by two more secular Coptic members of the Assembly, political analyst Samir Morcos and deputy chairman of the Freedoms Committee Edward Ghalib, who quit arguing “the body is moving on the road to writing a constitution for an Islamist state rather than for a national-unity state.”

 The Church’s withdrew because the draft constitution clearly puts Egypt on the road of becoming a religious state,” Ghalib toldAhram Online.

“This is quite obvious in the fact that under thepressure exerted by the Salafists [ultraconservative Islamists], article 220 was added [to the draft constitution] to offer a radical interpretation of the principles of Islamic Sharia (law),” explained Ghalib.

“Article 2, which affirms that the general principles of Sharia are the major source of legislation, had gained the consensus of all members, so it was strange to see that Salafists fired a volley of amendments, insisting that an explanatory article [220] be added to the final draft which states that these principles must be governed by the Quran, the Hadith [the Prophet Mohamed’s sayings and traditions], and the four schools of Islamicjurisprudence.”

Ghalib argued that article 220 violates the previous consensus under 1971’s constitution that theHigh Constitutional Court (HCC) is the one body exclusively entrusted with interpreting the principles of IslamicSharia.

 “Islamists reject the moderate interpretations of HCC, aiming to exploit article 220 to introduce radical and medieval interpretations of Islam that can open the way for a religious state and strip Christian Egyptians of their national rights,” added Ghalib.

Wahid Abdel-Meguid, a former spokesperson for the Constituent Assembly who joined withdrawing forces, told Ahram online that article 220 could very easily open the door to the formation of a ‘Wahhabi-style’ police adopted in Saudi Arabia which is known as the task for “the Imposition of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.”

“This is a big dangerous threat against personal freedoms in Egypt and puts the foundation of a Wahhabi-style religious state in Egypt in place,” argued Wahid.

Abdel-Meguid also argued that Islamists – both members of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist political parties – drafted an article 4 which “threatens to turn the moderate Sunni Islamic institution of Al-Azhar into a forum for extremist Islam.”

“While article 4 states that the selection of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar will be decided by the law, nobody really knows how this law will be passed, and there are no guarantees that this moderate Islamic institution will not fall under the hegemony of  Islamist radicals,” said Abdel-Meguid.

Abdel-Meguid said he “urges the two representatives of Al-Azhar – Hassan Al-Shafie and Nasr Wassel – to join hands with churches, by withdrawing from the Assembly.

Ghalib, meanwhile, said the Coptic Church is consulting with Al-Azhar hoping to convince it to withdraw its own representatives from the Assembly.

Abdel-Meguid, moreover, argued that the draft constitution strips workers and farmers of their rights including the right of their representatives to occupy 50 per cent of seats in parliament.

Abdel-Meguid, who has been the Assembly’s spokesman since its inception last June, was replaced on Sunday by Mohamed El-Sawy, an independent politician with close links to Muslim Brotherhood. El-Sawy said that he would hold a press conference on Monday to respond to attacks leveled against the Assembly.

The flurry of withdrawals gained added momentum on Saturday after the liberal Wafd party officially announced that it is withdrawing its five representatives from the assembly. However, two of the Wafd delegates, lawyer Mohamed Kamel and journalist Mohamed Abdel-Alim Dawoud decided to stay, with Kamel arguing “I am not in favor of withdrawing and for me it is better to fight for your case until the end rather than withdraw and leave the battle for a rival force.”

Meanwhile, the chairman of the liberal Reform and Development Party Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat decided to withdraw from the Assembly on Sunday. “I decided to withdraw for the sake of Godand Egypt, and it is deplorable that the constitution of Egypt is being drafted under threats, pressure and extortionby those who trade in religious and revolutionary slogans.”

However, another liberal, Ayman Nour, the chairman of the Ghad al-Thawra [The Revolution’s Tomorrow] Party, announced Sunday that the three members of his party in the assembly would suspend their activities and that they would make a final decision on withdrawal Saturday. A statement issued by Nour’s party held El-Ghiryani largely responsible for the” bad performance of the Assembly and for the fact that several articles of the constitution were drafted to give a president of the republic sweeping powers and open the door for a religious state in Egypt.”

Nour’s statement added that during meetings with Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last week, they urged him to use his powers to give the assembly an additional period of three months until it reaches consensus on the draft constitution.

"The president can simply amendarticle 60 of the current constitutional declaration to give the Assembly a grace period of three months until it finishes its job.”

The withdrawals also included ten members of the Assembly’s consultative committee including constitutional law expert Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd; political analyst Hassan Nafaa; and Nasserist activist Hamdi Qandil. In a letter to El-Ghiryani, this group said “We offered various suggestions but it is regrettable that they fell on deaf ears.”

All in all, the number of withdrawals from the assembly by Sunday, which constitute around one third of the total members, strips the assembly of attaining the 67-member quorum required to send the draft to a popular referendum. Under the Assembly’s internal rules, articles of the draft constitution must gain 67 votes during a first round of voting, or 57 votes in a second round if needed, in order to pass. The number of withdrawals

The Assembly’s Islamist-oriented chairman Hossam El-Ghiryani told members during Sunday’s session that “they should not be bothered by the flurry of withdrawals.’”

A defiant El-Ghiryani, who is under fire from liberals but is nonetheless supported by a majority of the assembly members who hail from the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist parties, added “I have not been officially notified of any withdrawals and it is rather better to go forward completing our job until the end without listening to all the fuss about withdrawals.”

Younis Makhyoun, a firebrand Salafist, told Ahram Online that “if extended for three months, the Assembly could face the threat of dissolution at the hands of the High Constitutional Court (HCC) which is currently reviewing a lawsuit aimed at invalidating the entire assembly.”

"This is a call for chaos from liberal forces who want to enshrine their secular agenda and non-religious views in Egypt’s constitution,” claimed Makhyoun.

"Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country and its constitution should stress this fact.”

Makhyoun and other Islamist hawks hold the view that those he describes as “secularists” should not be left to impose their final say onthe constitution’s articles “since they form a minority in the Assembly.”

“If they finally choose to withdraw then, okay, we also have the option of simply replacing them with substitutes,” warned Makhyoun.

Abdel-Meguid countered that “filling the Assembly with Islamist loyalists and sympathisers to replace non-Islamists will strip the Assembly of any kind of legitimacy or pretences that it is representative of the Egyptian people.”

“It will be the first time in Egypt’s modern life that its constitution is written in the absence of representatives of the Church and non-Islamist forces.”

The Assembly has so far approved the final texts of 85 articles – 27 of which belong to the chapter of “The State and Society” and 52 of which belong to the chapter on “Freedoms and Rights.” The Assembly approved five articles under the chapter on “The System of Governance”. Members voted for the retention of the upper consultative house of Shura Council.  They had also agreed to change the name of the People’s Assembly – Egypt’s lower house of parliament, to become “the House of Representatives.”

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