Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Dr. Mohamed El-Beltagy, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood and also a member of Egypt’s Constituent Assembly, stressed that any alternative constitution-drafting committee would not reflect the will of the Egyptian people, particularly as the current assembly was formed by the now dissolved Egyptian party. El-Beltagy, who is also a spokesman for the Freedom and Justice party – the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood – asserted that the calls for a boycott of the Constituent Assembly would return Egypt to a state of “political vacuum.”
El-Beltagy described the criticism being leveled at the Freedom and Justice party regarding the performance of the government of prime minister Dr. Hisham Qandill as being “normal”, in the context of the evaluation of an incoming government, adding that whatever happens, a new government will be formed in Egypt following the referendum on the forthcoming constitution.
Egypt’s now dissolved parliament formed the 100-member Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution for post-revolution Egypt. This is the second Constituent Assembly since the ouster of the former Mubarak regime, after the first assembly was dissolved by court order in April. Egypt’s courts are currently considering a lawsuit to dissolve the current Constituent Assembly due to the presence of former MPs within it.
The current Constituent Assembly has received significant criticism from Egypt’s liberal and left-wing political forces due to its perceived pro-Islamist bent. Human Rights activist Manal El-Tibbi recently resigned from the Constituent Assembly, and her strongly worded resignation letter has been the subject of controversy in Egypt. In the public letter, Manal El-Tibbi said that “we are approaching the drafting of a constitution that is worse than all previous Egypt constitution” adding that this constitution “would form the solid foundation not just for reproducing the former regime, but to create the state for the counter-revolution, whose direct job would be to neutralize the political, popular and glorious revolution of 25 January, 2011.”
The Egyptian Human Rights activist also claimed that this Constituent Assembly was “based on the military’s overwhelming use of power and authority, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s utilization of the parliamentary majority enjoyed by the Brotherhood, Salafists and Wahhabis.”
For his part, Dr. El-Beltagy said that there could be no complete consensus within the Constituent Assembly, adding that any such assembly would witness some differences of opinion and division. He also confirmed that El-Tibbi is the only member of the Constituent Assembly to resign until today. He stressed that the liberal and left-wing forces had boycotted some sessions, but this did not mean there was any official withdrawals or resignations from the Constituent Assembly. The Muslim Brotherhood spokesman asserted that all members of the constitution-drafting committee would be held to the assembly’s rules and regulations, namely that any assembly member who was absent for 5 or more sessions would be excluded.
Dr. El-Beltagy also told Asharq Al-Awsat that what is being proposed about reforming the Constituent Assembly, perhaps with some Islamist members being replaced, is “completely out of the question”. He confirmed that the only “reformation” of the assembly would see absent members being replaced by members present on the Constituent Assembly membership reserve list.
As for the possibility of the Constituent Assembly being dissolved for a second time by court order, Dr. El-Beltagy said “in this case, an alternative committee will be formed by presidential decree, as he [the president] has the right to reform this committee according to the ruling documents.”
Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, Dr. El-Beltagy said that the current Constituent Assembly “was formed by an elected parliament and represents the will of the majority of the people.” He confirmed that “any alternative assembly will not be able to achieve what this current Constituent Assembly has achieved in terms of representing the popular will.”
The Freedom and Justice party spokesman also revealed that he expects the Constituent Assembly deliberations to end in the coming few weeks, after the majority of constitutional articles have been agreed upon. In addition to this, the Constituent Assembly was given just 6 months to finalize a constitution, with this deadline ending on 12 December, according to the Constitutional Declaration issued last May. He stressed that “we will definitely finish our deliberations before this date.”
The Constituent Assembly ended its debate on the proposed Article II of the new constitution earlier this week; this article pertains to Islamic Sharia law. The Constituent Assembly members reportedly agreed to keep this article in the new constitution; the article states that “the principles of Islamic Sharia law would be the main foundation of legislation.” The previous 1971 constitution had seen an amendment attached to this article.
Article II of the new constitution will also reportedly include a clarification regarding the meaning of the term “principles”, ensuring that “this includes attestation of all Islamic Sharia law and jurisprudential views, as well as principles of Sunni madhabs.”
The new expanded Article II will also include an amendment that “followers of Christianity or Judaism have the right to appeal to their own religious laws in their personal affairs and practices, as well as the right to practice their religious rituals and choose their religious leaders.”
Salafist Constituent Assembly members conceded their earlier calls for the inclusion of a number of controversial articles, including an article dealing with criminalizing religious blasphemy, as well as an article on Zakat, Islamic almsgiving.
El-Beltagy also issued a call to former presidential candidates Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabahi, who have called for a boycott of the Constituent Assembly. He said “I continue to call on all Egyptian figures, including ElBaradei and Sabahi, to participate. History records all of our deeds and actions, and it is the duty of everybody to take positive stances, not negative ones. Criticizing the Constituent Assembly is not in the national interest.”
He added “calling for a boycott of the Constituent Assembly is a call for the continuation of a state of political vacuum, not just within the Constituent Assembly itself, but within the country as a whole.”
As for the criticisms being received by the Freedom and Justice regarding the performance of the Qandill government, el-Beltagy stressed “this represents an evaluation of the experience, especially as we are approaching the stage of completing the constitutional-drafting process.” He stressed that the Qandill government is a temporary government, as a new government will be formed following the referendum on the new constitution and parliamentary elections. For his part, Dr. el-Beltagy praised the performance of the Qandill government and stressed that any criticism was “normal”, adding “we do not need to defend it [the government] at all times.”