Egypt's new constitution preliminary draft limits Islamists' ambition

Gamal Essam El-Din , Thursday 28 Nov 2013

Secularists used their majority in Egypt’s constitution-drafting committee to reject the demands of Islamists on Islamic sharia and religious freedoms

Commission to amend the constitution (Photo: Al-Ahram)

After 12 hours of debate lasting from Wednesday afternoon into the early hours of Thursday morning, the committee charged with amending Egypt's new constitution was able to reach a consensus on the preamble and most of the chapters of the country’s new national charter.

The battle for drafting the new constitution’s preamble was particularly hard. The majority of secular members, supported by representatives of Egypt’s three churches (the Coptic Orthodox, the Catholic and the Anglican) and the Sunni Islam institute of Al-Azhar teamed up against the sole representative of the ultraconservative Islamist Salafist Nour Party, rejecting his last-ditch appeals that a “definition” of the principles of Islamic sharia be included in the preamble and the word “civilian” not to be used in describing the nature of the Egyptian state.

Mohamed Salmawy, the committee's official spokesman, told a press conference on Thursday that “the representative of the Nour Party has not succeeded in gaining support for his demands.”

Salmawy, however, argued that “it is complete injustice to say that the Nour Party has joined the committee just to compel it to give a separate definition of Islamic sharia in the new constitution or stand against any word describing Egypt as a 'civil' state."

This applies to all the committee members whose demands had not been completely met, said Salmawy.

Salmawy explained that during the 12 hour meeting, members voted in favor of drafting the preamble of the new constitution to state that “Egypt is a democratic state with a civil system of rule.”

As for Islamic sharia, Salmawy said the majority of members, including representatives of churches and of Al-Azhar, were able to reach common ground “in defining principles of Islamic sharia," and that "the High Constitutional Court will be left with the final say.”

In 2012 when the current constitution was being drafted, Islamist Salafists teamed up with the Muslim Brotherhood to make sure that a new article was inserted that gave a definition of sharia.

The Nour Party representative, Mohamed Ibrahim Mansour, decided to withdraw before the end of the committee’s meeting in the early hours of Thursday.

However, Salah Abdel-Maaboud, Nour's reserve member, told journalists that “the Nour Party had refused to withdraw from the committee.” Abdel-Maaboud indicated that “the Nour Party has reservations about the words 'civil rule' or leaving the final say on interpretation of Islamic sharia principles to the High Court.”

“But we will stay and we will not take this as a final say,” said Abdel-Maaboud.

For his part, Salmawy said that “the description of Egypt as a civil system was necessary to reflect the 30 June revolution’s main slogan, which called for a separation between religion and politics.”

Salmawy also argued that “the adoption of the word 'civil' does not contradict with the constitution’s articles which grant the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) the right to name minister of defence, and refer civilians to military courts under certain conditions."

“Some might say that these two articles lead to the creation of a military state in Egypt and that this contradicts with the word civil instituted by the preamble of the constitution, but this is not correct because this means an adoption of a very strict and limited definition of military rule, not to mention that the constitution grants other sectors, such as the judiciary, the right to name the prosecutor-general and senior judges,” he added.

In general, Salmawy indicated that after 55 closed-door plenary sessions, the 50-member committee has been able to conclude a second reading of all the constitution’s articles and put it to a preliminary vote.

Salmawy said the final draft would be put to a final vote on Saturday. “The committee’s internal bureau will meet tomorrow (Friday) to give a decision on how the vote will be held,” said Salmawy.

Salmawy indicated that members introduced two proposals; the first is that there is no need for an open televised meeting to hold a final vote on all articles as long as they had already gained consensus, while the second is that there should be a final vote in televised session, but on only articles which have not gained consensus.

If finally approved on Saturday, it would be the same date (30 November) that the 2012 constitution was passed by the 100-member constituent assembly under the government of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Salmawy said the committee’s chairman Amr Moussa will hold a press conference late on Thursday to announce further details.

Salmawy also indicated that in its Thursday morning closed-door meeting, the committee approved an article stating that “freedom of belief is absolute and the practice of religious rites is guaranteed and the building of worship places for followers of Abrahamic religions is to be regulated according to law."

Salmawy believes that this major progress towards religious tolerance and freedom in Egypt, arguing that “it is the first time for an Egyptian constitution to state that freedom of belief is absolute.”

On other matters, Salmawy said the committee had voted in favour of eliminating any quotas of seats for specific sectors of society in the upcoming parliament.

“This does not contradict with the committee’s adoption of the principle of positive discrimination for marginalised sectors in society,” said Salmawy, indicating that “the new constitution decided that elected local councils in all of Egypt should reserve 25 percent of seats for young people from 21 to 35 years in age and 25 percent for women, while at the same time it is necessary that 50 percent of candidates for elected councils be representatives of farmers and workers.”

Salmawy indicated that the committee had decided that a mixed electoral system be adopted in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

“This states that two thirds of seats will be elected via the individual candidacy system, and the remaining third via the party list system,” said Salmawy, adding that “the matter will be left to the president of the republic to issue a law regulating this system."

Amr El-Shobaki, chairman of the subcommittee on the system of governance, said the mixed electoral system was adopted upon his personal proposal. “This system creates a balanced way to help individual and party-based candidates alike join the upcoming parliament,” said El-Shobaki.


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