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Monday, July 16, 2012

Egypt’s Constitutional Assembly’s disputes, agreements and the current stage

Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi symbolically taking oath in Tahrir

After latest events of June 2012, when SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) dissolved People’s Assembly (the lower house of Egypt’s parliament) following the ruling of High Constitutional Court, the situation with writing Egypt’s new constitution became more tense. The powers represented in Constitutional Assembly couldn’t reach consensus, and the battles over the seats and representation of Islamist and non-Islamist parties and boycotting the meetings of assembly by some of its members provoked the strong reaction of SCAF. The members of current Constitutional Assembly received SCAF’s ultimatum: either they come to agreement about the appointing the members of the constitutional panel and start to work on drafting the future Constitution or SCAF will interfere in the process and dissolve the current assembly, appointing the new one. Under such circumstances Constitutional Assemble finally resumed its work this month, but the process of drafting the new Constitution doesn’t go smooth, as Islamist and non-Islamist powers are again at odds over some basic issues of the future highest document of the state.

Several arguable issues are still on table, as Salafists (Al-Nour and Asala parties) became more active again in efforts aimed at improving their radical and ultra-conservative view of Islam in Egypt’s new constitution. The members of those parties are trying to impose the changes to the three first articles of Egypt’s 1971 Constitution, which define the nature and the main principles of the state.

As a result the Constitutional Assembly finally finished the drafting of the Article 1 of the new Constitution on 11 July 2012. This article outlines the main principles of the state and the nature of the country, and now this article states following: “The Arab Republic of Egypt is a democratic, Shura-based (consultative), constitutional and modern state based on separation of powers and the principle of citizenship. It is a part of Arabic and Islamic nations and is connected to the African continent”. The addition “Shura” (which means “advisory”, “consultative”) was proposed by Salafist members and it was agreed upon all another members of Constitutional Assembly. It means that all authorities and governing bodies may participate in state’s political life and constitutional operations, so any individual political force cannot monopolize the power.

Another agreement was reached over the Article 2 concerning Shari’a Law (Islamic Law), which was one of the main points of argues since the formation of the first Constitutional Assembly. Now the text of Article 2 is: “Islam is the religion of the state, Arabic is official language. The principles of Islamic Shari’a are the main source of legislation, the honorable Al-Azhar is the final source of its interpretation, and the proponents of Christianity and Judaism have the right to refer to their own doctrines when it comes to personal law and performing their religion affairs and selecting their spiritual leaders”. There were some argues over this article, as Salafists wanted the words “the principles of Shari’a Law” to be removed, because they are sure that the Shari’a Law, not just its principles, should be the main source of legislation. From the point of view of Salafists, who represent the hard line of Islam, it’s a necessary step which will prevent Egypt of becoming secular state. So they want that the Article 2 sounds “Shari’a Law is the main source of legislation in Egypt”, not its principles. But those proposals met a lot of criticism from liberal and secular forces and from the representatives of Al-Azhar as well. Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyeb made a statement that they will not accept any changing and phrasing of the text of Article 2 of 1971 Constitution, so they are against editing of this article. It has to remain unchanged and any laws and rulings that will violate it and principles of Shari’a in Article 2 will be considered unconstitutional by HCC (High Constitutional Court). It is worth mentioning here that some Salafist members were against this phrasing too. Secularists and liberals joined this dispute and insisted that there’re must be no changing of the text of this article to save the secular nature of Egyptian state in the new Constitution. Most of the representatives of Muslim Brotherhood said they see no need in editing the Article 2, so the agreement over it was finally made.
Egyptian Constitution
The process of editing the text of Article 3 was arguable too, as Salafist were trying to have stronger impact on it, but the changes they proposed weren’t approved, and the final text of the Article 3 is: “Sovereignty is for people alone and the people are the source of authority. The people shall exercise and protect this sovereignty, safeguard national unity in a manner specified in the Constitution”. The Salafist members proposed to change one important aspect of the article removing the word “people” and changing it to “God”, so the article could state that “Sovereignty is for God and it’s the source of authority”. It was met with serious disputes and was strongly opposed by secular and liberal forces, because they saw in it a threat to the secular nature of the country and a foundation of a theocratic state. Muslim Brotherhood didn’t see the necessity in changing the current text of Article 3 to satisfy Salafists too, so those changes were rejected, as it is enough that it is already declared that Islam is the state religion.

The Constitutional Assembly also finalized the article relating to freedom of press and expression, and according to the new constitution the freedom of press is guaranteed except in times of war. There are also agreements reached concerning some matters of governing system, such as President’s duties and powers and the role of armed forces. Thus the President considers being the head of state and of the armed forces and has the right to appoint the minister of defense. But armed forces will save some of its privileges and the military budget will remain private and can be discussed only during the closed sessions of parliament. Another agreement was also reached by the members of the assembly is that President can declare war only after consultation and with approval of the armed forces and parliament. As for Al-Azhar it will remain the nation’s highest Islamic authority and is independent.

So it is worth mentioning that despite some disagreements and disputes the consensus among the members of the Constituent Assembly seems to be finally reached, and most of the texts formulated and discussed by the panel are agreed too. Egypt has the long history of administrative and legislative codes, its Constitution has passed a long period of evolution, and it is very important on this current stage to remember the goals and demands of January 25 Revolution which created the possibility of rewriting the Constitution according to the new principles. The future Egypt’s Constitution should focus on democracy, equality and human rights and not religious identity, military budget and the issues like that, as those issues are temporally and fluid, and the Constitution is the document defining the nature and life of the state for the next generations to come, and Egyptians deserve the better future for them.