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What is at stake in Egypt’s upcoming constitution?*

Egypt's parliament building Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr
The entrance to Egypt’s parliament building has been the scene of sit-ins, celebrations and violent crackdowns
The drafting of Egypt’s new constitution - like the rest of the country’s politics since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power last year - has been a hotbed of contention.

The temporary suspension of a court case against the constitutional assembly gives the committee two months to draft the document and put it to a national referendum before the committee risks being dissolved once more on the grounds that it was created illegally.

Analysts worry that, in its race against time, the 100-member committee, dominated by Islamist parties but including lawmakers, legal experts and representatives of state institutions, will not give due attention to issues that will define the country’s future.

“We are in bad need for a constitution that recognizes the rights of all citizens, regardless of which religion they follow, where they live, or whether they are men, women or children,” Gamal Zahran, a political science professor at Helwan University, told IRIN. “I have hopes that the members of the committee will overcome their ideological affiliations and put the interests of their country into account. Egypt stands to lose if its new constitution does not achieve social justice.”

The new constitution is an important step in the transition to civilian rule laid out by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over from Mubarak in February 2011.

How will religion inform the new constitution?

Some members of the constitutional assembly have proposed making Islamic Sharia laws the only basis for legislation, unlike Article II of the 1971 constitution, applied in Mubarak’s time, which speaks only of the “principles” of Sharia. Other Islamist members of the assembly have contemplated replacing the phrase “Supremacy is for the people” with “Supremacy is only for God”. Liberals worry that if this latter statement is adopted, future opposition could be considered sacrilege, and rule of law would suffer.

The prospect is also unnerving to Egypt’s estimated 9 million Christians (about 10 percent of the population), who want the constitution to recognize their rights to build churches, assume leadership positions, and be judged by the rules of their own religion, especially in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance.

“If Sharia laws are applied, Christians will not be considered first-rate citizens,” Kamal Zakhir, a prominent Christian advocate, told IRIN. “We do not want to suffer even after the revolution, which should turn Egypt into a land for all its residents.” He went so far as to warn that serious sectarian violence could occur if the new constitution does not recognize Christian rights.

Islamist members of the constitutional assembly, such as Salafist Yasser Borhami, say Christians have no reason to worry. “Throughout history, when Sharia law was applied, Christians led a dignified life,” he told IRIN.

How will the role of the presidency change?

The 1971 constitution gave Egypt’s president unlimited powers, making him the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the National Security Council. He was able to appoint one-third of the members of the senate and some members in the lower house of parliament; appoint and fire ministers, governors and the head of the intelligence service; sign agreements with other countries without consulting parliament; dissolve parliament at any time; and appoint the editors of state-owned newspapers and TV stations. The president was appointed for life, serving an unlimited number of six-year terms. (Mubarak held presidential elections in 2005 as a concession to Western pressure, but was not required to do so by the constitution).

''I am afraid that the constitution will strangle rights organisations for the sake of charities… After all, charities do not criticise the government, but feed the hungry on its behalf''
Mahmud Hanafi, a political science professor at Zagazig University says the new constitution should do away with most of these powers and leave the country’s future presidents with powers that do not “turn them into other pharaohs.” The committee has indicated that the new constitution will limit any president to two five-year terms.

According to Salah Abdel Maaboud, a member of the committee from the Salafist Al-Nour Party, the new constitution will also strip the president of the right to dissolve parliament without putting this decision to a national referendum. Any declaration of a state of emergency must have the consent of parliament and will only last six months, he added. (Egypt lived under a state of emergency from 1981, when then-President Anwar Sadat was assassinated, until 2012, when it was finally lifted).

What about the army?

The army became a major political force after Mubarak left. It designed and controlled the transition, appointed all prime ministers and cabinets before June’s presidential elections, and controlled security inside the country. The army wants to maintain a special status in the new constitution, with full control over its budget, arms deals and economic interests, which include factories for everything from mineral water to cars. But they have run into resistance from the Islamists.

“Everybody has respect for the army, but nobody will accept for this army to be part of Egypt’s internal political life,” said Khalid Saeed, a Salafist leader. “The army’s job is to defend our country’s borders, not to be a state within the state.”

In the wake of the Islamists’ post-revolution rise, the army wants the constitutional right to safeguard Egypt’s secular system - a position many liberals and secularists support. The head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, Hussein Tantawi, has affirmed more than once that the army will not allow Egypt to turn into a theocracy.

Little attention to socio-economic rights

The role of religion and the army have dominated public discourse about the new constitution, and little attention has been paid to laws around socio-economic rights.

“[Given] their great urgency and importance, why have social and economic rights fallen into oblivion?” writes Amr Adly, director of the Social and Economic Justice Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Youm.

The current constitution makes no mention of the right to housing, for example, and has not been amended to include the new rights adopted in the last four decades, like the right to water, and land and environmental rights, Adly says. Nor does it provide a “clear mechanism” through which rights can be enforced by the state.

“Given the nature of the transition, little room has been left for any deep-cutting or radical social and economic changes,” Adly says.

Are women being left out of the process?

After playing an equal role in the revolution, women walked away with eight of the 498 seats of the now-dissolved parliament. The new cabinet, sworn in on 2 August*, has two women ministers of a total of 35. The constitutional assembly has six female members.

Egyptian women line up to vote in the first free and fair parliamentary elections in November 2011. Cairo, Egypt
Photo: Heba Aly/IRIN
Egyptian women want constitutionally-mandated political representation
“This shows that there is no real will to empower women or even make a constitution that gives them their rights,” said Mona Ezzat, a women’s rights activist from local NGO New Woman Institution. Women’s rights activists want special articles in the new constitution giving them equal opportunities for work, political empowerment and more representation in parliament. They also want the constitution to ban gender discrimination, sexual harassment and physical violence.

Some worry that the post-revolution rise of political Islam will come at their expense. In last year’s parliamentary elections, some Islamist parties refused to put photos of female candidates on posters. Salafist preachers later issued edicts barring women from raising their voices in parliament, saying it was against the teachings of Islam.

“This is the mentality of the people who will write our new constitution,” Ezzat said. “If women are not recognized as full-fledged citizens in the new constitution, violators will get the green light to victimize them even more.”

What are the prospects for civil society?

In the months following the revolution, civil society organizations, particularly rights and democracy groups, came under what they called an organized campaign by government to tarnish their reputation by accusing them of receiving funding from foreign governments to destabilize Egypt. The government raided their offices and even sent some heads of organizations to court. These organizations say the new constitution recognize NGOs as the government’s partners in economic and social development. They want the freedom to form NGOs, launch projects and work without restrictions.

“NGOs can be the link between the government and the people because they are more equipped to reach people in all parts of this country,” said Shady Amin, the executive director of local NGO Al Haq Centre for Democracy and Human Rights. “Instead of cracking down on NGOs, the government should think of how best it can benefit from these NGOs to make Egyptians’ life better.”

Amin worries, however, that lobbying against human rights violations that have occurred since the revolution may have positioned NGOs as a threat in the eyes of the new administration.

“I am afraid that the constitution will strangle rights organizations for the sake of charities,” Amin said. “After all, charities do not criticize the government, but feed the hungry on its behalf.”

How will children fare?

Deteriorating security conditions after the revolution gave rise to violence across Egypt, opening the way for the exploitation and abduction of children. Rising numbers of families, especially in the countryside, are also forcing their underage daughters into temporary marriages to wealthy Arab tourists, according to a recent report by the US State Department.

Given this climate, child rights organizations are demanding more protection for children in the new constitution, including banning child labour and child marriage. They also want the constitution to commit state institutions to finding solutions for the hundreds of thousands of street children.

“This is necessary, particularly in the absence of state institutions that seriously advocate children’s rights,” said Mahmud Al Badawi, the head of local NGO Egyptian Society for the Assistance of Juveniles and Human Rights.

What do workers want?

Since the revolution, hundreds of thousands of workers have taken to the streets, protested at government offices and staged strikes, demanding higher pay, better work conditions, and more balanced employer-employee relations.

The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights counted 271 protests and strikes by workers only in the first 15 days of July alone.

“Workers’ conditions are so bad that these workers cannot be left to be preyed upon by employers without constitutional protection,” said Fatma Ramadan, a senior executive from the Egyptian Federation for Independent Trade Unions.

Ramadan points to “huge income disparities” among workers and employers’ ability to fire workers without legal recourse for the latter.

She is calling for a constitution that outlines minimum and maximum salaries for workers, the right to form independent unions, protection against unfair dismissal, and the right to strike and protest peacefully.


*This article was amended on 9 August 2012. The original article erroneously reported that the new cabinet was sworn in on 2 July.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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