The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Egypt's new constitution

Egypt's constituent assembly is working away at the country's new constitution, which they hope to finish and put to a referendum by the end of the year. 

Some articles of concern so far are article 8, on religious right and freedoms, which states that "freedom of belief is safeguarded" without specifying that the state is responsible for doing the safeguarding and gives the three heavenly religions (therefore limiting recognized religions to Islam, Christianity and Judaism) the right to practice but only "according to the law and without violating the general order"; and article 36, on women's rights, which states that "the state will take all legislative and amdministrative measure to entench the principle of women's equality with men in the political, cultural, economic and social fields as long as it does not violate the rulings of Islamic Sharia [...]."

The much-discussed article 2  for now remains the same (I believe) as it was in the 1971 constitution, invoking "the principles of Sharia" as "the main source" of law.

Another area of concern is an article that would make the ancient religious institution of Al Azhar the official "reference" for determining whether legislation is in accordance with Sharia. This idea keeps being taken up then taken back then taken up again by Islamist parties, seemingly based on their sense of their capacity to eventually control Al Azhar.  

The assembly actually has a pretty good website, where you can look up draft artices (and give them thumbs up or down) and read the minutes of the 12 general assemblies held so far. But sessions haven't been televised (which would have reached a much wider audience), the negotiations over various articles remain an opaque affair and generally there has not been an effort to engage Egyptian society in a real debate over the constitution.

A number of liberal and secular figures — already great underrepresented in the assembly — have boycotted. They are likely to be unhappy with the final result, but it is doubtful that they have the leverage necessary to challenge it -- with the army now largely out of the equation and with President Morsi holding the power to dissolve and reconstitute a new assembly of his own choosing (Morsi recently said he cannot interfere in the constitutional assembly's negotiations, which — given the sword of Damocles he holds over the entire process —is patently disingenuous). 

So far as I can tell, there is little indication of the powers of the presidency being dramatically diminished. The upper house of parliament — the Shura Council — which has been largely considered an irrelevant, influence-peddling body, is apparently to stay. And the question of what kind of electoral system Egypt will adopt (individual candidates, party lists, or some combination of the two) remains under discussion.