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Why is Egypt's draft constitution so controversial? (+video)

Protesters took to the streets in Cairo and other Egyptian cities today over a draft constitution written by Islamists. Here are the points many in Egypt are talking about.

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That clause says the principles of sharia should be in accordance with the established schools of Sunni Muslim doctrine. This limits the discretion given to judges in deciding on sharia issues, and could limit them from applying a progressive interpretation of sharia. But it could also keep judges from drawing on more extreme or conservative interpretations of sharia, say rights activists. 

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Also included in the constitution is an article stipulating that scholars of Al Azhar, the university and mosque considered one of the most respected centers of Sunni Muslim research and learning, be consulted on matters of sharia. It does not make the Al Azhar scholars' opinion binding. 

It is the first time that a consultative role for Al Azhar has been enshrined in Egypt's constitution.

Both of these articles are dangerous, says Michael Hanna, a fellow at The Century Foundation who tracks Egyptian politics. "What that does is begins to shift all the terms of discourse away from the civil law system and toward religiously-based strictures," he says. "Al Azhar is enshrined in the text. Sunni jurisprudence is enshrined in the text. It begins to shift the terms of reference and privileges a certain discourse that is religiously based."

Rights and freedoms

The constitution contains one article that makes a broad provision for free expression. But Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch, says the drafters failed to include crucial language explaining how that right may be limited, which is needed "to make sure that the limitations are narrow and there's no abuse," she says. 

Instead, they included two additional clauses which limit free speech. One prohibits insulting prophets, and another prohibits insulting the "individual person." Both are vague enough that they can easily be used to limit freedom of expression and could lead to an avalanche of lawsuits. Blasphemy charges have jumped in the last year and a half, and charges of insulting the president and the judiciary have already increased since Mr. Morsi took office.

Freedom of religion has also been curtailed in the new constitution. Egypt's previous constitution guaranteed the freedom of religion and religious practice. The same wording was used in earlier drafts of the new constitution. But the document that was voted on last night only promises freedom of practice for the Abrahamic religions – Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. 

This leaves other religious sects in Egypt, such as Egyptian Bahai'is, stripped of the right to publicly practice their faith.

"To say that they can't even practice their religious rights is terrifying," says Ms. Morayef. She notes that the limitation could easily be appled to Baha'is, who have already fought an uphill battle in Egypt just for the right to leave the religion section of their national identity cards blank. (ID cards include citizens' religion and the options are limited to Islam, Christianity, or Judaism.)


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