Egypt's constitution should allow freedom of worship for all religions: Salmawy

Gamal Essam El-Din , Monday 16 Sep 2013

The spokesperson for the 50-member constitution-drafting committee said that Egypt's new constitution must allow followers of religions other than Islam, Christianity and Judaism to worship freely

Constitutional committee spokesman Mohamed Salmawy

The 50-member committee responsible for amending Egypt’s constitution may reexamine constitutional statements that limit freedom of religion to followers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, according to a leading member of the committee.

Mohamed Salmawy, the committee's media spokesperson, told a press conference on Monday that "it is very important for Egypt's new constitution to be amended to give followers of different world religions the right to exercise their rites freely."

Salmawy indicated that the 2012 constitution, drafted by an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, stated that "the right to exercise one's religious rites and establish places of worship is guaranteed for the three heavenly religions only: Islam, Christianity and Judaism.”

Salmawy argues that the wording must be changed because it violates international conventions on human rights.

“The more the constitution's articles are comprehensive and inclusive of all religions and sects, the more it will be in line with international human rights benchmarks.”

“The constitution cannot be tailored to a certain religion or a certain sect," he added.

According to Salmawy, international statistics show that one third of world's population are members of “non-heavenly religions” and that a lot of Muslims live in countries where the official religion is not Islam or Christianity.

“It is quite problematic to ask non-Muslim countries to give freedom to Muslims living on their land while Muslim countries refrain from doing the same to non-Muslims or people who do not believe in the world's three heavenly religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism,” he said.

“The constitution-drafting committee will do its best to reach a consensus formula which could maintain Islam as the official religion of the state but at the same time ensure freedom for followers of all world religions to exercise rites," Salmawy said.

Salmawy's comments also came in response to the decision of Bassam El-Zarqa, the single representative of the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party on the committee, to withdraw from a sub-committee meeting today.

El-Zarqa proposed that Article 2 of the constitution be amended to state that "Islamic sharia is the main source of legislation in Egypt" in place of its current wording, which reads: "the principles of Islamic sharia are the main source of legislation in Egypt."

El-Zarqa's proposal was rejected by chairman of the ‘basic constitution components and the state' sub-committee, Mohamed Abdel-Salam. The committee's members joined forces with Abdel-Salam, who is also a legal advisor to the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar University.

The sub-committee members also rejected an alternative wording proposed by El-Zarqa: "The rules of Islamic sharia are the main source of legislation in Egypt."

El-Zarqa argued that his proposal reflects a strong belief in Islamic sharia and the Islamic identity of Egypt. He said his amendment would allow the elimination of controversial Article 219 which gives an interpretation of the meaning of “principles of sharia” that many liberals and moderates warn is too conservative.

El-Zarqa decided to withdraw from the sub-committee meeting after his two proposals were rejected.

Hussein Abdel-Razeq, a member of the leftist Tagammu party, argued that "the elimination of the word ‘principles’ in favour of the word ‘rules’ is aimed at imposing a strict code of Islam, including the application of what is known as the hudood.”

Hudood punishments in Islamic law include the amputation of limbs as a punishment for theft, and other forms of corporal and capital punishment for a number of offences.

Salmawy said at the press conference that El-Zarqa’s withdrawal “does not mean that he has decided to boycott the upcoming meetings of the 50-member constitutional panel and its sub-committees."

"I hope that all members exercise restraint and know that it is natural to differ until they reach consensus," he added.

The ‘basic components’ sub-committee members also agreed that Article 3, as re-drafted by a 10-member technical committee last month, be kept in place. The article states that "for Egyptian Christians and Jews, the principles of their religious law will be the main source in regulating their personal status laws, matters pertaining to their religion, and the selection of their spiritual leadership."

Amendments to the governance system

The sub-committee also proposed that in order to allow early presidential elections to be held, two thirds of members of parliament must approve. The sub-committee suggested that just one third is authorised to withdraw confidence from the president but for early presidential elections, two thirds must say approve the motion.

Abdel-Salam said the majority party will be authorised to name the country's prime minister, and he must get support from 51 percent of members of parliament to be officially appointed.

"If he fails, parliament itself would move to name a prime minister and if it fails, the president will move to appoint a prime minister," said Abdel-Salam. If the president's appointee failed to get parliament's confidence, parliament itself would be dissolved.

At the press conference, Salmawy also dismissed rumours that the chairman of the constitutional committee, Amr Moussa, was injured in a car accident and had to be taken to hospital.

“Moussa’s driver hit in an accident on his way to the north coast and he was taken to hospital by Moussa's daughter,” Salmawy said.

Salmawy said Moussa met with prominent female constitutional law professor and judge Tahani El-Gabali on Monday.

"El-Gabali is currently chairman of a constitution revision committee established by Egypt's Higher Council for Culture, and Moussa asked her to inform him of the outcome of this revision," he said.

El-Gabali said it is very important for the new constitution to impose an outright ban on religious parties and not to let “dark forces steal the ideals” of the two revolutions in Egypt.

Incrimination of torture

Hoda El-Sadda, chairman of the rights and liberties sub-committee, indicated that the sub-committee reached an initial agreement on 12 articles out of 39 under review.

"The most important is that we decided to devise new two articles (37 and 38) to incriminate all forms of torture and discrimination," said El-Sadda.

She said that under the Muslim Brotherhood's 2012 constitution, torture and discrimination were not incriminated.

According to El-Sadda, the new constitution's preamble will be also changed to state that the national charter of Egypt is mainly inspired by the ideals of the two revolutions of 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2013.

El-Sadda indicated that although the committee has not yet discussed the issue of military trials, she has a firm personal belief that civilians must not face trial before military tribunals.

Speaking about systems of governance, Salmawy stressed that Egypt's previous presidential systems were dictatorial, be they under the regime of the deposed president Mohamed Morsi or his predecessor Hosni Mubarak.

"A big challenge for us now is to devise a new presidential system in which the president faces serious accountability and shares powers with an effective parliament," he said.

Salmawy also said that the new constitution, under a chapter called transitional articles, will name the electoral system which will be implemented during the upcoming parliamentary elections. "It will also state whether certain sectors of society will be stripped of their political rights or not," Salmawy added.

There have been ongoing discussions in recent weeks about whether the new constitution will retain a clause that bans from political life leading officials from Hosni Mubarak’s now-disbanded National Democratic Party.

Under deposed president Morsi, Egypt's non-Islamist political forces repeatedly argued that the constitution was not representative of all sectors of society and limited many freedoms, accusing the Islamist majority in the constituent assembly which drafted the charter under Morsi of ignoring their recommendations.

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