Debates as committee starts work on Egypt's new constitution
Gamal Essam El-Din, Monday 9 Sep 2013
The 50-member body that will create a final draft of the constitution started its work on Monday

The committee entrusted with writing the final draft of Egypt's post-Morsi constitution started work on Monday.

The first meeting of the 50-member body was devoted to endorsing the committee's internal bylaws.

Amr Moussa, a liberal politician who was voted the committee's chairman, got the approval of the majority of members for five sub-committees be formed to discuss different items.

"These include the system of government, rights and freedoms, basic components, national dialogue, and the final constitution-drafting sub-committees," said Moussa.

Theformerliberal-leaning presidential candidateexplained that each of the sub-committees would include an estimated 15 members, holding daily roundtable meetings to finish its task.

Moussa also indicated that the first three sub-committees will begin their meetings on Tuesday, and stressed that "there will be a deadline for each sub-committee to finish its task within the 60-day period."

The committee is bound to present a final draft of the new constitution to the president with 60 days.

According to Moussa, the drafting of the new constitution is designed to pass through three stages.

"At first," said Moussa, "sub-committees begin discussing chapters of the constitution on Tuesday, and this stage is to be followed by a special constitution-writing committee taking charge of formulating a semi-final draft of the national charter."

Moussa also indicated that "the final stage will come when the 50-member committee discusses a semi-final draft of the national charter prepared by the special constitution-writing committee in plenary meetings."

Hot debate erupted over Article 18 of the bylaws stating that the constitution-writing committee will include the ten members of the technical committee which, prior to the establishment of the 50-member body, put together an initial draft of the constitution on 24 August.

Members insisted that the 50-member committee must be given the upper hand in formulating the final draft of the constitution.

Diaa Rashwan, chairman of the Journalists Syndicate, cautioned that: "if the 10-member technical committee is given any rights in putting together the final draft, this will open the door to [judicial] appeals aimed at dissolving the 50-member committee."

Members agreed that the role of the technical committee, which is made up of leading jurists and legal experts, should be just "advisory."

Several disagreements erupted during the initial debates about the committee's bylaws. Rashwan together with Sameh Ashour, chairman of the Lawyers Syndicate, sharply disagreed over whether the 2012 constitution would be just amended or changed completely.

"The constitutional declaration issued by interim President Adly Mansour on 3 July was clear that the main task of the 50-member committee is to just amend the 2012 constitution," said Rashwan.

"If we want to change this constitution completely, we have to ask the interim president to amend the 3 July declaration," he added.

Ashour disagreed. "If our task was just confined to amending the 2012 constitution, this would be against the ideals of the 30 June revolution."

"The 2012 constitution must be changed completely because it represents an attack on judicial authority, inflames sectarian strife and disrupts national security."

Moussa argued that "members have complete freedom in amending articles, at the end of which we could find ourselves with a new constitution."

Moussa also said that a special meeting would be allocated to discussing this "tricky issue."

Members also discussed press coverage of the committee's meetings. The committee's spokesperson, Mohamed Salmawy, explained that "press statements" in Arabic, English and French will be issued on a daily basis so that the media keep abreast of the latest developments.

Salmawy, however, appealed to members not to allow "special documents be leaked to journalists" without Moussa's permission.

After considerable debate, members agreed that the bylaws be amended to allow live televised coverage of the plenary meetings. The article, however, also states that "under the approval of the majority of members, there will be closed-door meetings to be aired later or not."

Article 6, which states that "for an article to be passed, it must gain the approval of 75 percent of the committee's members" also caused disagreements. Some members, like chairman of the Wafd Party El-Sayed El-Badawi, proposed that "for an article to be passed, it must gain consensus or no less than 80 percent of the committee's members."

Moussa countered by arguing that "75 percent is an adequate benchmark to reflect consensus and so it must be maintained." The committee, however, decided that "controversial articles be discussed first in sub-committees and if they failed to gain consensus, they will be referred to plenary meetings, and in order to be finally passed, it will be necessary to gain the approval of 75 percent of members of the committee."

Moussa also proposed that the 50-member committee hold bi-weekly plenary meetings to review the debates conducted by the sub-committees, which will meet almost on a daily basis.

The committee's rapporteur, Gaber Nassar, however, indicated that "the 50-member committee could hold three or four plenary meetings each week and whenever necessary to accelerate the drafting process."