The battle over Egypt’s constitution has reached a critical juncture. Before the constituent assembly’s mandate expires in December—and in the face of a pending court case that threatens to dissolve the body altogether, allowing President Mohammed Morsi to handpick a new one—its members are rushing to finalize a charter that will be put up for a yes/no referendum. The current fight is the culmination of a struggle that has been at the forefront of Egypt’s troubled political transition for the past twenty months, during which the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the most powerful organized political force in the country, accompanied by a sudden rise of ultraconservative Salafi groups in formal politics.
Under particularly intense negotiation—and media scrutiny—are several key provisions in the constitution that will define the role of religion in the state. The constituent assembly is dominated by Islamists, largely from the Muslim Brotherhood and the main Salafi political party. The Salafis have long advocated revising Egypt’s constitution to make clear that Sharia law itself—rather than the “principles” of Sharia, as the constitution has read in the past—is the main source of all legislation. Facing widespread opposition to this change, which would allow for a stricter interpretation of Islamic law, many Salafi members are pushing for an additional provision granting Al-Azhar—Egypt’s premier Islamic institution—the final say in determining whether laws conform to the principles of Sharia. This would essentially make it the final arbiter on legislation, giving Supreme Court style powers to an unelected, unaccountable religious body. With a small voting bloc in the constituent assembly, some liberal members have threatened a mass walkout over provisions they consider non-negotiable if the civil nature of the state is to be preserved.
The amount of attention devoted to the battle over religion has largely eclipsed other essential aspects of Egypt’s forming constitution—among them, how it will define the balance of power between the branches of government, impose oversight of the military and extend protection of civil rights and freedoms. Rights groups and other stakeholders have pointed to serious drawbacks in the current draft when it comes to civil rights and liberties. “The draft provides for some basic political and economic rights but falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and, surprisingly, torture and trafficking,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Such criticisms have been dismissed by senior members of the constituent assembly, among them Amr Darrag, its secretary-general and a senior official in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. “We have a lot of articles referring to the right for education, health care, the right for housing, the right of a clean environment, and the state is committed to make sure that these rights are really achieved,” he says. “Those who are saying that the draft does not represent the revolution actually did not read the document.”
But civil society groups monitoring the drafting process point to specific provisions that limit certain rights or severely narrow their scope, representing—in a number of cases—a step backward compared to the previous 1971 constitution. “It seems they’re aiming towards a very restrictive perspective on basic human rights,” says Soha Abdelaty, associate director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
For example, despite the fact that widespread police brutality and torture were among the central grievances that sparked the January 25 uprising that ultimately overthrew Hosni Mubarak, the drafted constitution makes no reference to “torture,” instead outlawing lesser forms of physical harm. When it comes to press freedom, the latest draft revives the government’s authority to close a newspaper or publication by court order, a power canceled under Mubarak in 2006. The constituent assembly’s own spokesman, Wahid Abdel Meguid, delivered a strongly worded memo to the drafting committee asking, “Is this possible in a constitution that comes after a revolution that aimed to free Egyptians?”