In Egypt's draft constitution, little sign of revolutionary ideals

A partial draft of Egypt's new constitution released yesterday has prompted warnings that it restricts rights such as freedom of expression and religion.

The committee writing Egypt’s new constitution released a partial draft yesterday, requesting public feedback on a document that will lay out the role of government and which has become a focal point in a debate about the role of Islam in the state. 

But the draft omits two of the most contentious articles, leaving unclear the committee’s position on proposals to put a blasphemy ban in the constitution, as well as on calls to give clerics the responsibility to determine whether legislation abides by sharia, or Islamic law. 

The draft constitution has become the center of a bitter debate between Islamists and secular politicians, who say Islamists are using their newfound power to write an “Islamic constitution” that restricts rights. 

In a report released this week, Human Rights Watch said the document undermines rights of women and children and freedom of expression and religion.

“The draft constitution contains many loopholes that would allow future authorities to repress and limit basic rights and freedoms,” said Nadim Houry, deputy director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, in a statement. “The Constituent Assembly should address those concerns before voting on the constitution.” 

The previous constitution, written in 1971, was suspended last year when military generals announced they were taking power after 18 days of massive protests forced former president Hosni Mubarak from power. The draft released yesterday would reduce the previously immense powers of the presidency, instead striking more of a balance between the executive and the parliament. It includes presidential term limits, but does not yet include an article laying out the level of civilian oversight of the military. 

The draft also kept the second article of Egypt’s constitution exactly as it was in the previous document – it says the principles of Islamic sharia are the main source of legislation. Ultraconservative Islamists known as salafis had campaigned to change the article to make a more direct connection between sharia and the law.

But in another article, the draft constitution says the state should ensure equality between men and women as long as it does not conflict with the “rulings of Islamic sharia” and says the state will ensure a woman will “reconcile between her duties toward the family and her work in society.” That article, says HRW, “would open the door to further regression in women’s rights.” 

Two very contentious proposals were not included in the draft, apparently because they are still under debate. One would ban insults to God, the prophets, the caliphs, and their wives, a measure rights advocates say would limit free expression and, like Egypt’s anti-blasphemy laws, would likely be used against minorities and those with unpopular views. The other article would give clerics at the Islamic University Al Azhar the final say in determining whether legislation abides by sharia.

HRW also criticized the draft constitution for failing to clearly prohibit torture, even though police torture was one of the catalysts of the uprising against Mubarak. The assembly also removed wording criminalizing trafficking of women and children after pressure from salafi members, and the draft limits the right to build a house of worship to the three Abrahamic religions. HRW did praise the document for upholding some basic political and economic rights, and particularly praised an article prohibiting exceptional courts and trying civilians before military courts. 

The process of writing a new constitution has been contentious from before any words were put on paper. A court dissolved the first assembly after Islamists in the now-dissolved parliament dominated the election process to make sure the body had a majority of Islamists. In the second attempt, many liberals and leftists withdrew from the assembly after they could not reach an agreement with Islamists about representation. And even while the current assembly is working on a constitution, a court is hearing a case that could dissolve the assembly.

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