Islamists, Coptic Church exchange threats over Egypt's new constitution

Gamal Essam El-Din , Sunday 24 Nov 2013

As constitutional committee finalises draft, disputes over definition of Islamic sharia in preamble continue to cause ruptures

Bishop Paul of the Egyptian Orthodox Church (L) and Nour party leader Younis Makhioun (R)

The 50-member committee entrusted with amending Egypt's suspended 2012 constitution is struggling to reach consensus over the charter's preamble and 17 other controversial articles.

Bishop Paula, the committee's Coptic Church representative, threatened to withdraw from the committee for a second time in protest of the constitution's preamble, which currently reflects a large input from the ultraconservative Salafist Nour party. The committee's representatives from the Catholic and Anglican churches have also threatened to withdraw over the preamble.

Paula told parliamentary correspondents on Monday that "representatives of Egypt's churches withdrew from the 2012 constituent assembly [which first drafted the suspended constitution] after Islamists insisted on drafting a new article that would define the principles of Islamic sharia. It seems that we will have to withdraw again, because the revised constitution's preamble offers a definition of Islamic sharia as per the Nour Party's demand."

Paula also charged that committee members decided to remove the word "civilian" from the preamble's description of the Egyptian state at the request of the Nour Party.

The current preamble in circulation amoung committee members now states "we are writing a new constitution that will establish a modern and democratic state in Egypt, and it is a constitution which stresses that the principles of Islamic sharia are the major source of Egypt's legislation." 

Representatives from the Nour Party and Egypt's leading Sunni institution Al-Azhar have threatened to withdraw if the word "civilian" is included, because they argue that it reflects secular and western values.

The 50-member committee held lengthy closed-door meetings on Saturday and Sunday in a bid to reach consensus over the preamble and some 17 other articles which have not attained the required 75 percent approval over the past weeks.

Some press reports have estimated that the constitution draft will be put to a final vote on Thursday, but the growing distrust between the Islamists and their opponents may delay the committee's vote.

Sources said the committee has reached consensus over one of a total 17 remaining issues.

According to Amr El-Shobaki, chairman of the system of governance subcommittee, the agreed-upon article is the charter's article 121.

Article 121 has been amended to state that the president – in consultation with the majority party or the coalition with the most seats in parliament – will name the prime minister. If the parliament refuses the selected prime minister, the parliament itself is entitled to name the premier. The president, in consultation with the prime minister, retains the right to name four key cabinet ministers: defence, foreign affairs, justice and interior.

The above text differs from an earlier version, which gave the majority party or the winning coalition the right to name the prime minister. According to the article's former wording, if the selected prime minister failed to gain the parliament's approval within 30 days, the president would be entitled to name the prime minister.

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