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Egypt's constitutional reform begins—again - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Members of Egypt's constitution committee meet at the Shura Council for the final vote on a draft Egyptian constitution in Cairo. (Reuters)

Members of Egypt’s constitution committee meet at the Shura Council for the final vote on a draft Egyptian constitution in Cairo. (Reuters)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—The monumental task of amending the Egyptian constitution is finally underway, following the formation of the 50-member constitutional drafting panel earlier this week. The majority of Egyptians have welcomed the diversity of the panel, which includes a number of well-known public figures. As anticipated by many observers, Egypt’s Islamists are largely opposed to the makeup of the committee, even though a number of their leading figures are set to take part in the committee’s activities, which are slated to begin later this week.

Islamists against the committee

While there are many objections to the composition of the 50-member committee, at a procedural level it is functioning according to the interim government’s road map announced in July (The 2012 constitution, drafted by the then-Islamist-dominated government under Mohamed Mursi, was suspended will the fall of the former president).

The members having been announced, the 50-member committee will examine draft amendments proposed by the 10-member experts’ committee that has already been working for some time. Following this, the amendments will be put forward for public debate, while the constitutional drafting panel will also hear proposals from ordinary citizens. The final draft of the constitution must be completed within 60 days from the date of the committee’s first meeting, which is scheduled to take place next week. Parliamentary and presidential elections are set to follow in 2014.

But before the real work of redrafting the constitution can begin, Egyptians must be satisfied with their representatives. The interim government aimed to include representatives of all sections of Egyptian society, including representatives of the armed forces and police, farmers, lawyers, engineers, students, women and the press.

Former MP Mohammad Anwar Sadat, a nephew of the former president, told Asharq Al-Awsat that his Reform and Development Party has high hopes for the 50-member constitutional drafting panel.

He described the panel’s composition as being “good and balanced,” but acknowledged some issues in terms of the lack of representation for women, trade unions, and Egyptian expatriates.

But there have been vocal objections to the list of appointees to the larger committee from all sides, perhaps the most vocal of which have come from the beleaguered Islamist factions.

The Muslim Brotherhood have roundly rejected Mursi’s ouster, the subsequent suspension of the 2012 constitution, and both the formation and makeup of the constitution drafting committee as illegitimate. The military-backed interim government tapped the Brotherhood to nominate candidates to take part in the drafting process, something the organization refused to do, saying that Mohamed Mursi remains Egypt’s legitimate president and the 2012 document remains the country’s legitimate constitution.

As for the Salafists, they have complained that the committee was not elected, a sentiment perhaps stated most clearly by Al-Nour Party official and former adviser to President Mohamed Mursi, Khaled Alameddine.

Alameddine emphasized that the ad hoc committees responsible for amending the constitution “were appointed by the interim president,” and are therefore undemocratic and do not represent the people.

He added that the way the constitutional drafting panel was created was aimed at marginalizing Egypt’s Islamist forces, given the inclusion of only a small number of Islamists, describing their inclusion as a “public relations stunt” to allow the government to claim that the panel is balanced.

Nour Party spokesman Sharif Taha reiterated that the committee has excluded the Islamist community, and that the small share of seats allotted to the Islamists “is proof of the leftist–nationalist faction’s control over the committee’s operation.”

“The committee only includes one person from an Islamist party, Dr. Bassam Al-Zarqa, who is the deputy leader of the Al-Nour Party. The other person who is alleged to represent an Islamist party is [former Brotherhood spokesman] Dr. Kamal El-Helbawy, but he does not represent any Islamist party,” added Taha.

Adding to the criticism from established Islamist parties, various pro-Islamist fronts that have formed in Egypt over the past two years have also been voicing objections to the new constitution-drafting process. Dozens of these smaller groups offer their support to varying causes, and they all seek to impose their will on the Egyptian street and in the media.

These groups take different forms: pro-Islamist novelists and writers have formed small coalitions against the secularist–civilian current, while in other sectors of society people in favor of a civil state have formed alliances against the Islamist movement. The same applies to official and non-official trade unions, with journalists, lawyers, engineers and teachers uniting in support or opposition of the military-backed interim government and its transitional roadmap.

The various stances taken by these fronts have only served to further complicate Egypt’s political and social scene. Immediately following the announcement of the makeup of the constitutional drafting panel, the leaders of different fronts came out to denounce the interim government and its committee, claiming it did not represent the Egyptian people.

One front, composed of judges loyal to the Islamist movement, has openly denounced the committee, arguing that it was illegitimate because it was formed in violation of Egyptian law and the Egyptian constitution.

Members and supporters

There are glimmers of hope for the constitutional committee, however, with many mainstream secular and religious organizations approving its membership and supporting its work.

Official representatives of all Egyptian religious institutes have taken a place on the 50-member panel. Egyptian Grand Mufti Shawky Allam is representing Al-Azhar in the constitutional drafting process. Members of the three main strands of Christianity in Egypt are also on the panel, with Bishop Paula of Tanta representing the Copts, Bishop Antonious Aziz Mina of Giza representing Catholics, and Safwat El-Bayyady acting for the protestant community.

The majority of secular parties have also approved the steps taken by the interim president regarding the constitutional committees. However, this does not mean that the secularist bloc is free of divisions. Egypt’s leftist camp has been witness to controversy over representation, with the smaller parties claiming that they did not receive a fair number of representatives.

Perhaps trying to dispel fears that even the groups most likely to support the secular-leaning interim government might complicate its transitional phase, a leading figure in the National Salvation Front (NSF), a broad coalition of liberal and leftist parties, has said that such rows are “minor and fleeting.”

The NSF official, who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, added that the main objective is to work for the success of the transitional phase and not to come to blows over constitutional provisions, which ultimately can be adjusted by parliamentary proposals or by the future head of state.

Getting down to business

Even if Egyptians could form a consensus around the membership of the constitution-drafting committee, the arduous task of actually drafting the new document would remain highly divisive.

Egypt’s current constitution, introduced in 2012 and suspended since July 8 this year, has been a highly contentious document. Largely an updated version of the 1971 constitution brought in under Anwar Sadat that saw ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak through his three decades in power, the 2012 constitution was surrounded by controversy over the inclusion of several Islamist-leaning clauses and its strengthening of the position of the Egyptian military.

Former Muslim Brotherhood member and spokesman Kamal El-Helbawy is now one of the Brotherhood’s most vocal critics and a member of the 50-person committee. In a recent interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, he highlighted the failures of President Mursi’s constitutional politics: “[He] neglected to use those with expertise and experience here in Egypt, ignored requests to amend the constitution and change the government and the attorney general [and] issued the Pharaoh-esque constitutional declaration in November 2012.”

This time around, the committee must avoid repeating Mursi’s mistakes while also addressing the inclusion of contentious articles concerning the role of Islam and Shari’a law in Egyptian society.

Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution, which provides that lawmakers should look to Sunni jurisprudence as a guideline for their work, has been in place since 1971.

But the 2012 constitution added two additional clauses, Articles 4 and 291, that vastly expanded the influence of Islamic law on Egyptian legislation. Article 4 established the Al-Azhar institution as the highest arbiter of Islamic law in Egypt. Article 291 vastly expanded the scope of Article 2, stating that the Shari’a and Sunnah must underpin and shape all Egyptian lawmaking.

Both those articles have been effectively removed from the new draft proposed by the 10-member committee, which the larger 50-member committee will now debate.

Dr. Saad El-Din El-Helali, a committee member and comparative jurisprudence professor at Al-Azhar University, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the amended constitution “will not include shameful articles” designed to serve a specific trend, faction, or group, referring to the expanded Islamism of the 2012 constitution.

He added that some of the articles in the former constitution were meant to “immortalize a state that cannot exist in reality,” considering articles that entrenched Shari’a as “offensive to Islam”—a reference to the Islamic idea that no person or group should act as the sole guardians of the Islamic faith.

But grand mufti of Al-Azhar and constitutional committee member Shawky Allam noted that “there is a consensus among Egypt’s various groups not to depart from our Islamic identity and to keep the principle of citizenship as the basis from which the people interact with each other and the state.”

He emphasized that the Al-Azhar contingent will work diligently to ensure that the Islamic body’s stance is clear, closely studying the language of any proposed amendments. He said that the Al-Azhar representatives will focus on “upholding Islamic Shari’a and Islamic identity,” adding that these concepts are firmly ingrained in the collective Egyptian psyche.

In contrast, some secularist parties argue for the need for Egypt’s amended constitution to include articles banning parties based on religion in order to avoid a repeat of the events of 2011 and 2012, which saw some political parties exploiting mosques and other religious forums for political advantage.

Article 6 of the suspended constitution says: “No political party shall be formed that discriminates on the basis of gender, origin or religion,” yet some parties overtly engage in politics on a religious basis.

Additional reporting by Waleed Abdul Rahman.