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The head of the Egyptian 50-member comittee Amr Moussa EPA/AMEL PAIN
Image: picture-alliance/dpa


Markus Symank, Cairo / db
December 2, 2013

Experts are in disagreement over Egypt's new draft constitution: Is it an uneasy compromise, or a breakthrough for democracy? Possibly as soon as January, the Egyptian people will decide in a nationwide referendum.


The final draft charter has 247 articles and is to be handed to interim head of state Adly Mansour on Tuesday. Mansour then has 30 days to set a date for a popular referendum on the draft.

According to Amr Mussa, the head of the 50-member constitution-drafting panel, the new constitution fulfills the revolution's hopes of freedom, democracy and social justice. However, Egyptian human rights activists are of two minds about the draft charter. "Compared to the old constitution, it is definitely a step forward," Amr Abdel Rahman says. But compared with international human rights standards, the head of the civil liberties unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) adds: "We still lag behind."

Toned-down references to Islamic law

The new draft is not the first one since Egypt's January 2011 revolution. Almost exactly one year ago, an Islamist-dominated panel presented a constitution that was later approved by 64 percent of the population. When the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, however, it suspended that constitution.

An exterior view on the Shoura council building EPA/AMEL PAIN +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
The panel met in the upper house of parliamentImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The current panel has just two Islamists. Article 2 defines Islam as the religion of the state and the principles of Islamic law, or sharia, as the main source of legislation, but other references to Islamic law were reduced. Al-Azhar Mosque, the country's most important religious institution, is no longer to have a say in legislation. The body to decide on matters of faith and religion is not a religious institution, it is now the constitutional court, Abdel Rahman says. "This is a plus."

Representatives of conservative Islam prevailed in other areas, including women's rights, Abdel Rahman says. The new draft dismisses discrimination based on gender, ethnic affiliation or religion but the state is called upon to ensure women's liberty does not conflict with sharia demands. Other articles also show no clear departure from previous constitutions. The new draft guarantees the freedom of religion - but only for Sunni Muslims, Christians and Jews.

Religious parties declared illegal

Hafez Abu Saea, the director of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, points out a significant improvement compared to previous constitutions: all social groups are to be represented adequately in parliament. "That forces parliament to reflect the will of the Egyptian people, regardless of their religion, age and gender."

A new article declares religious parties illegal. As a result, Mohammed Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist ultraconservative Party of the Light might be excluded from elections. Together, the two groups had won two-thirds of the vote in the country's first free parliamentary elections two years ago.

Army preserves privileges

The balance of power between parliament and the president would be adjusted under the new constitution. The army has carried its far-reaching privileges into the new era, however, and could undermine this very balance. The military budget is still not controlled by parliament. The army also reserves the right to appoint the defence minister in the next two legislative periods and to allow military courts to try civilians under certain circumstances. While Abu Saeda regards the military's special rights as a threat, he also says, there is no other choice in view of the current political situation: "We are in a very critical situation, so we have to make this compromise."

Pro-Mursi university students and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood occupy Tahrir Square REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Protesters filled Tahrir Square as the panel put the finishing touches on the constitutionImage: Reuters

The present interim government is doing its best to ensure that the new constitution receives a greater percentage of approval than the previous Islamist charter a year ago. To that end, Abdel Rahman says, it made far-reaching allowances to Egypt's most powerful institutions - including the army and the Al-Azhar Mosque.

"This is the major dilemma of the Egyptian constitution: that we want a democratic constitution, but for this democratic constitution to pass, you are completely dependent on the whim and tactics of authoritarian forces," Abdel Rahman says, and adds: "This will not work."

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