Egypt's constitution drafters defend eliminating controversial Sharia article

Gamal Essam El-Din, Wednesday 4 Sep 2013

Representatives of several political forces, including Islamic scholars, in the 50-member committee entrusted to finalise a draft of Egypt's new constitution say Article 219 defining Islamic Sharia must be dropped

File photo: An Egyptian man holds a ballot before casting his vote at a polling station during a referendum on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012. (Photo: AP)

A 50-member committee entrusted with writing the final draft of Egypt's new constitution will plunge into business 8 September. Representatives of political, social and religious institutions forming the committee have begun obtaining their membership cards. By the end of Wednesday, almost half number the committee's members had done that. The single representative of the ultraconservative Salafist El-Nour Party was not one of them.

Interviews made by parliamentary correspondents have so far showed that most of the members who registered their names are in favour of eliminating Article 219 of the 2012 Constitution (the base being amended), which delivers an interpretation of Islamic Sharia. This included even university professors affiliated with Al-Azhar University.

Saadeddin Al-Hilali, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, said Wednesday that  "Article 219 does a lot of injustice to Islamic Sharia itself because it imposes a strict code of Islam, or rather creates a kind of religious dogmatism on society."

Al-Hilali said: "It is quite enough to have Article 2 stating that Islamic Sharia is the major source of legislation in Egypt" and that "the matter on interpreting Islamic Sharia issues should be left to the High Constitutional Court (HCC) as stated by the 1971 Constitution."

"The relationship between God and his worshippers should be direct, without the intervention of anyone. No one should resort to the constitution to impose their personal interpretation of religious verses, and Islamic Sharia, on society," he added. "When you differ with these personal interpretations, they would call you a non-believer."

Al-Hilali also surprised parliamentary correspondents by agreeing that Al-Azhar's Council of Grand Clerics should be stripped of having a final say on Islamic Sharia issues — as was established in Article 4 of the 2012 Constitution.

Secular members, mostly liberal and leftists, also called for eliminating Article 219. Hussein Abdel-Razeq, a leading official of the leftist Tagammu Party, sharply attacked El-Nour Party after some of its leaders charged that the 50-member committee was dominated by secularists and "enemies of Islam".

Abdel-Razeq said El-Nour's allegations represent a clear kind of "extortion."

"Most political forces are equally represented in the committee and this is fair and balanced and unlike 2012 Constituent Assembly, which was swept by Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood allies," he stated.

"My party is in favour of eliminating all articles about Islamic Sharia. It is not just a matter of Article 219, but also  Article 2 which states that Islamic Sharia is the main source of legislation in Egypt.

"It is a fact that all Egyptian constitutions from 1923 to 1971 never mentioned a word about Islamic Sharia. It was enough for them to state that 'Islam is the official religion of the state'. After late President Anwar El-Sadat came to office in 1971, and after he made a coup against the legacy of his predecessor, President Nasser, he wanted to strike a chord with Nasser's Islamist foes — especially the Muslim Brotherhood — and in this context he introduced the Islamic Sharia article for the first time in Egypt's history," Abdel-Razeq added.

According to Abdel-Razeq, "Egypt must get rid of Sadat's legacy, which led to the proliferation of radical religious forces." On Article 219, Abdel-Razek said: "It tries to impose a certain medieval interpretation of Islam, not to mention that several Islamist factions have their own interpretations of Sharia and each considers itself the most righteous, while they see others as not true believers in Islam."

Joining forces with Abdel-Razeq, Mohamed Ghoneim, a high profile university professor who founded Al-Mansoura's International Centre for Kidney Transplants, said he is in favour of adopting "Al-Azhar's 2011 document which stressed the importance of religious freedoms and which was signed by Islamists, liberals and Egyptian churches."

"Article 219 violates this document and it was imposed by Islamists and Salafists to impose their strict interpretations of Islam," said Ghoneim.

Ghoneim also attacked El-Nour party, rejecting its accusations that "liberals are enemies of Islam and the Islamic project." "I really wonder if can we call Al-Azhar clerics who reject Article 219 and strict interpretations of Islamic Sharia 'enemies of the Islamic project'?" exclaimed Ghoneim.

Sameh Ashour, chairman of the Syndicate of Lawyers and chairman of the Arab Nasserist Party, was a little more mild when speaking on Article 219. Ashour said he will do his best to see to it that "all political forces reach a kind of consensus over controversial articles before putting them to a vote."

"I think our parameters should also be that Egypt's new constitution should lead to the creation of a democratic and civilian state, reflect the rule of law, and respect of human rights," said Ashour.

Informed sources said that when meeting for the first time Sunday, members of the committee will begin drafting the internal regulations governing their performance. There is consensus that "for an article to be passed, it should get approval of 75 per cent of the committee's members."

Shaaban Abdel-Alim, a leading official of El-Nour Party, said that "the party has so far refrained from boycotting the committee but with respect to the hegemony of liberals, the rule should be that members first reach a kind of consensus before voting on controversial articles."

Mervat Al-Tallawy, chairman of the National Council of Women, said: "I really hate factions that mix politics with religion or resort to religion to intimidate their political opponents."

"Fortunately, the 30 June revolution broke out to put an end to the extortion of Islamists who threatened that they would burn Egypt if their demands were rejected," she added.

Al-Tallawy described Islamist-oriented political parties as the biggest threat facing Egypt, saying: "We should impose a strict ban on these parties, especially after Egypt suffered the nightmarish one-year rule of the Muslim Brotherhood regime."

According to Al-Tallawy, Article 219 must be revoked, because "it sows the seeds of sedition among different religious sects." In general, Al-Tallawy attacked 2012's Islamist-backed constitution, citing Article 11 of the constitution that "goes against the freedoms of women." She also complained that several articles of the 2012 Constitution state that "rights should not violate Islamic Sharia." "These articles were added for political reasons and were mainly aimed to stifle female freedoms under the cover of religion and Sharia," Al-Tallawy said.

Mona Zul Fukkar, a prominent lawyer and a human rights activist, argued that "the 2012 Constitution's articles, on top of which Article 219,  aimed to sow the seeds of sectarian strife in Egypt and our job now is to draft a civilian constitution." She criticised El-Nour's accusations that Islamists are underrepresented, saying: "What about the three representatives of Al-Azhar and other professors of Islamic studies, not to mention that most members believe in enlightened Islam?"

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