Egypt's constitution: How 5 stakeholders would shape the document

With elections now over for Egypt’s parliament, lawmakers are are deciding who gets to write the country's new constitution. There is much at stake including the role of Islam in the state and the power of the military. Yet for such an important document, the timeline is rushed: The constitution is expected to be put to a referendum before presidential elections, scheduled to begin May 23. Here’s what key stakeholders want Egypt’s new constitution to look like.

1.The Muslim Brotherhood

Mohamed Saad al-Katatni of the Muslim Brotherhood speaks to other members of parliament during the first Egyptian parliament session, after the revolution that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, in Cairo January 23. (Khaled Elfiq/Reuters/File)

The Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, proposed in the joint parliamentary session in early March that parliament members should make up 40 percent of the constituent assembly, the body tasked with writing the constitution. That would give the FJP, the largest party in both houses, a significant say in drafting the document.

Party leaders have said repeatedly that the constitution should reflect a national consensus, and should not be dominated by any one party or ideology. “We already have a national consensus about the first four chapters – the essentials,” says party leader Essam El Erian. “The genuine debate will be about the political system,” whether authority is centered in parliament or the president.

Power has been concentrated in the presidency for decades in Egypt. The new constitution is widely expected to give parliament more power – the question is how much. Though the FJP’s platform endorses a parliamentary system, the party has come to endorse a “mixed” system, where power is divided between parliament and the president. Under such a system, the prime minister would come from the largest party and have a more powerful role. The parliament would likely be given responsibility for internal affairs, while external affairs would be left for the president.

Another important debate will be to what extent the new constitution asserts civilian control over the military, which wants to preserve its power and privilege and exempt itself from civilian oversight. FJP leaders say they will reject military influence on the constitution or a political role for the military. But in recent months, it has declined to challenge the military council on other issues.

On the issue of Islam’s role in the state, party leaders say they have no plans to change the second article of Egypt’s previous constitution, which states that the principles of Islamic law are the principal source of legislation.

The Nour Party

The Nour party, which is the second largest in Egypt’s new parliament, is made up of salafis, Islamists who are more conservative than the Brotherhood. They lobbied for the constituent assembly to be dominated by members of parliament, giving Islamists more influence on the process. A party member said yesterday, during the joint session of parliament, that it is the majority’s right to write the constitution.

Some party members have expressed the desire to write into the constitution that Islamic law is the only source of legislation rather than the principle source, or to make other changes in wording that make a more direct connection between the constitution and Islamic law. But a spokesman for the party, Mohamed Nour, said the party would leave the second article as it was in the previous constitution.

He also said the party wants the new constitution to clearly lay out the rights of citizens. Mubarak’s regime repressed the Brotherhood and salafis, and they were often subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention, and abuse. Mr. Nour says the party prefers a parliamentary system, but would support a mixed system. Each institution’s authority, however, should be clearly spelled out in the constitution, he says.

Secular parties

Secular and liberal parties, which won a small percentage of parliamentary seats, want fewer parliamentary members on the constituent assembly to dilute Islamist influence on the constitution-writing process. They would like to see a constituent assembly in which parliamentary members make up only 20 percent, and the others are drawn from different sectors of society. They do not want to change the previous constitution’s article on the role of Islamic law.

Some secular party leaders support a presidential system, wary of giving power to a parliament dominated by Islamists. But they concede that the new constitution is likely to divide power between parliament and the president.

Mohamed Abul Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, says a presidential system, albeit one that places more limits on presidential power, best serves Egypt’s needs for the next decade. Parliamentary systems work best with strong, established parties, he says, which Egypt doesn’t yet have.

Activists

Many of the secular and liberal activists who participated in Egypt’s uprising are uncomfortable with the rushed timetable for writing the constitution. And some oppose the current process altogether, saying that a constitution should not be written under military rule.

“My position is that anything that comes under the SCAF umbrella is illegitimate,” says activist Shahira Abouellail, referring to the military council now ruling Egypt. She worries the constitution will be influenced by the military. A constitution should be written under a civilian government, she says, and should not be written by those who can use it to increase their own power. The process should not be rushed, she says. “This isn't a time for a shortcut, this is a time for laying down a strong foundation.”

The military council

Egypt’s military rulers have indicated a desire to control the constitution-writing process, likely because they want to keep a new civilian government from asserting control over the military and curtailing the power and privilege the institution currently holds. Since the coup led by Army officers that overthrew Egypt’s king in 1952, the military has held an important place in Egypt’s power structure.

Last year the military council released to political parties a proposed draft of constitutional principles which would have shielded the military’s budget from civilian oversight and given the military a say in choosing the constituent assembly. The military council abandoned the document after a massive protest, but in an interview with foreign journalists in December, SCAF Maj. Gen. Mukhtar El Mullah made clear that the council intends to have a role in selecting the members of the assembly.

General Mullah also had an opinion on what should change in the constitution itself – very little. “A lot of legislators say that we have a very good constitution, a very unique one, except for Article 5 which is concerning the presidential elections. So we will only amend this chapter,” he said in the briefing.