Egyptian constitution changed after final vote, claim committee members

Mariam Rizk , Tuesday 17 Dec 2013

Two members of the constitution drafting committee say that the final draft of the text voted on by the panel was altered to change the phrase 'civilian rule' to the less restrictive 'civilian government'

Mohamed Abul-Ghar (front), head of Egyptian Social Democratic Party, gestures before a vote at the Shura Council in Cairo December 1, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

A member of the committee responsible for redrafting the Egyptian constitution has said that the wording of the text was changed after the committee had approved the final draft, implying behind-the-scenes military involvement.

In an interview with the private TV channel Al-Tahrir on Monday, Mohamed Abul-Ghar, the head of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said that the committee had voted on a final draft containing the word "civilian rule" in the preamble, while the version submitted by the committee to the interim president had replaced the phrase with "civilian government."

The "civilian state" expression was a source of controversy during the process of amending the constitution. The term "civilian" is used to mean both non-religious and non-military.

The 50-member committee was assigned to amend the 2012 Islamist-backed constitution which was suspended after the July ouster of president Mohamed Morsi.

A final version of the amended constitution was presented to the interim president on 3 December after several months of discussion. A public referendum on the new text will take place on 14-15 January.

Bishop Antonious, representative of the Catholic Church in the committee, told Ahram Online that members had been given a copy of the draft text containing the "civilian rule" phrase during the final vote, but that committee head Amr Moussa had read out the alternative phrasing.

"During the final voting, we were surprised to hear Amr Moussa [head of the panel] reading 'civilian government' instead of 'civilian rule,' and he stopped for a couple of seconds," Bishop Antonious said.

"A few of us yelled: 'It's rule, Mr. President' because we thought he'd misread it, but we didn't turn on our microphones because we had earlier agreed not to have discussions at the final vote," Antonious said.

At some point in the session, "Moussa stated that 'civilian government means civilian rule,' " said Bishop Antonious.

In what appears to be a reaction to Abul-Ghar's interview, committee spokesman Mohammed Salmawy denied that any changes were made to the constitution's final version.

"The text read by Moussa at the final vote is the exact same text handed to the interim president," Salmawy said in comments to reporters on Tuesday.

While Antonious was among the first to notice the apparent difference and to object to it, he told Ahram Online he was opposed not to the term itself but rather the fact that "they changed it without telling us."

"Personally, I don't know why they changed it this way. I cannot analyse the situation," he said.

Constitutional expert Rafaat Fouda, head of the public law department at Cairo University, believes there is a major difference between the two formulations.

Civilian rule, he said, would prohibit having a military man or man of religion as president, would prevent any kind of political activities with military or religious tones, and would outlaw applying military provisions to civilians -- including military trials for civilians, a measure permitted in the draft constitution. The term "civilian government" would make all of the above scenarios legally possible, according to Fouda.

"The term 'civilian government' is useless because the cabinet does not rule (alone)," Fouda told Ahram Online. The Arabic word for government is often used to refer to the cabinet.

"Ruling power is divided between the president and the parliament... this term allows military men or clerics in the presidency or in parliament."

The "civilian government" expression, Fouda argued, does not allow any military personnel or religious clerics in the cabinet. Paradoxically, another article in the constitution states that the defence minister has to be chosen from among the ranks of the military.

In his interview, Abul-Ghar said the whole issue was brought back to his attention two days after the final vote when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces invited the panel to dinner, distributing a "neater" version of the constitution that was to be submitted to the interim president and that also included the expression "civilian government" instead of "civilian rule."

"We were almost leaving, so no one opened the draft except Bishop Antonious [who] made a fuss about it, and we were all shocked," Abul-Ghar said, explaining that Moussa brushed off their concerns, but they still "left unhappy with what happened."

Abul-Ghar was invited to report the issue and make the case public.

"But honestly, the majority of us did not want to make a fuss out of it," he said "so as not to affect the positive voting on the constitution."

The last-minute change is viewed by some as a way to placate the Salafist Nour Party, the only Islamist group that took part in the drafting process, and to ensure they would lobby for a yes vote.

Nour representatives had been angered by the removal of an article from the new draft that had opened the door for subjective and strict interpretations of Islamic law.

The article was introduced in the 2012 Islamist-backed constitution, widely criticised for granting a bigger role to Islamic clerics, and for giving vast powers to the president and the military.

"We are sure there was an agreement with a small group of people, including Amr Moussa, without the knowledge of the rest of the committee members, for the benefit of the Salafists to vote yes on the constitution," Abul-Ghar said.

The group was also motivated by "pressures from the deep state," added Abul-Ghar.

The Nour Party has officially announced it will call upon citizens to vote yes in the referendum, while the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which Abul-Ghar heads, has yet to take an official stance, but is likely to support the yes campaign.

"I don't want to confuse things in the referendum. It is a mess, but let's just let it pass," Abul-Ghar said.

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