The Sketchy Articles of Egypt’s Constitution

Egypt's president Mohamed Morsi delivers a speech during a ceremony where he received a copy of the final draft of Egyptian new constitution from the head of the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, late on 1 December 2012. (Photo: AFP )

Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi delivers a speech during a ceremony where he received a copy of the final draft of Egyptian new constitution from the head of the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, late on 1 December 2012. (Photo: AFP )

An analysis of the Egyptian draft constitution and its human rights flaws, published in Al-Akhbar English in December 2012.

A new version of Egypt’s constitution has been approved, but has the Islamist-dominated government further abrogated Egyptians’ rights? Al-Akhbar breaks down the document’s contradictions and inconsistencies as Egyptians prepare for a constitutional referendum in two weeks.

Early on Friday morning, Egypt’s Islamist-led constituent assembly approved a version of the constitution.This document, heavy in legalese and light in secular values, comes after President Mohammed Mursi’s move last week to grant himself autocratic powers.

The constituent assembly started a session to vote on the constitution almost immediately after it was made public. Liberal and Christian members of the assembly sat out the vote in protest of what they perceived to be a takeover of the process by Islamists.

As a result, no Christians and only four women – all members of Islamist parties – were present during an overnight session, during which the assembly plowed through the text for 16 straight hours, voting on each of the constitution’s individual 234 articles.

An unofficial English translation of the approved text is in progress on the website of the Egypt Independent and is accessible here. The original Arabic text can be seen here.

According to Article 60 of the Constitutional Declaration of March 30, a national referendum to adopt or reject the constitution must take place 15 days after the approval of the draft. This short interval raises questions about how well-informed voters can be with so little time to examine the lengthy, verbose legal text.

Several points of contention have been raised by activists on what the constitution means for Egyptians’ civil rights. Three key areas that many demonstrators fought for on Tahrir Square in the past two years are only shakily covered by the proposed text, whether due to inconsistencies or overwhelmingly Islamic interpretations of the meaning of rights.

Religious Liberties

Article 2 of the constitution states:

Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic its official language. Principles of Islamic Sharia are the principal source of legislation.

The wording of the article has been subject of much debate. Christians and more secular-minded critics have denounced basing the constitution on sharia, while some Salafis have demanded that sharia, not its principles, be used as the only source of legislation.

Article 219 clarifies that legislation will be based on Sunni schools of jurisprudence. According to Human Rights Watch Director for Egypt Heba Morayef, this article received the most number of negative votes in the assembly, but not out of a spirit of secularity.

Article 219 was ultimately kept towards the end of the constitution, abiding by a previous agreement with representatives of the Coptic Christian minority.

Another worrisome passage is Article 43:

Freedom of belief is inviolable. The state guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites and the establishment of houses of worship of the Abrahamic religions; as regulated by law.

The reference to Abrahamic religions excludes all non-monotheistic religions, but particularly puts Egypt’s small Baha’i minority, which has already been subjected to discrimination and violence, at risk.

Freedom of expression

Contradictory passages throughout the constitutional document refer to freedom of expression, causing worries about excessive leeway in interpretation which could limit those rights.

Article 45 states:

Freedom of thought and opinion are guaranteed. Every human being has the right to express an opinion orally or in writing, photography or other means of publication and expression.

However, the article immediately preceding it takes a stand against blasphemy, prohibiting insults against “messengers and prophets.”

Article 31 also proclaims the “inviolability of every human being” and forbids insults against “the human.” The vague phrasing of this passage raises questions as to what might constitute an insult, and which “humans” can claim to be protected by this law.

Finally, Article 48 broaches the topic of the freedom of the press, but once again with ominous language.

The article stipulates:

Freedom of the press, printing, publishing, and other media is guaranteed. […] Control over what is published by the media is prohibited, but there may be an exception in times of war or national mobilization.

Nowhere in the rest of the constitution are times of “national mobilization” defined. Legitimate concerns arise as to whether this clause can be used liberally, like the decade-long state of emergency under former rulers Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

Women’s Rights

Since the parliamentary elections which brought a majority of MPs from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi movement, there have been broad concerns as to whether Egyptian women will be able to obtain advances in their civil rights.

The institution of sharia law as a basis for Egyptian legislation has already confirmed these worries, but equally troubling is the complete absence of an article specifically naming equality between genders.

Article 33, which in previous drafts affirmed the equality of all citizens regardless of sex, religion or origin, is now stripped of these specifiers.

Women are only referred to in the context of the family. In Article 10, the state is tasked with enabling “reconciliation between the duties of a woman toward her family and her work.

Family is described as the “basis” of Egyptian society, and is, according to the text of constitution, “founded on religion, morality and patriotism.”

Women being narrowed down to their role as childbearers and caregivers within a religious and moral context is seen as extremely problematic by liberals and feminists alike.

Up for a Vote

Unsurprisingly, the document has garnered positive responses from Islamist parties who formed a majority of the constituent assembly.

“This constitution represents the diversity of the Egyptian people. All Egyptians, male and female, will find themselves in this constitution,” Essam el-Erian, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood said on Friday.

Whether a majority of Egyptian citizens agree with that statement will be seen during the referendum to ratify the constitutional text in December.


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