Cairo - Egypt unveiled a proposed draft of a new constitution Wednesday amid criticism from liberals and human rights groups that the document is tilted toward Islamic law and endangers the democratic ideals that inspired the uprising that last year overthrew Hosni Mubarak.
The partial draft, which was opened for public review, immediately revealed the battle lines between Islamists and secularists over the nation’s character. Dominated by ultraconservative and moderate Islamists, the 100-member assembly that wrote the charter made it clear that civil and religious rights would be shaped through the prism of Islam.
The proposal has echoes of Egypt’s 1971 constitution, but the new document is a testament to a changing political era in which a nation once run by Western-leaning military men is now, after an uprising and months of tumultuous politics, increasingly in the hands of Islamists. That prospect is recasting alliances and weakening the influence of the U.S. and other Western powers.
The draft states that Egypt is “a democratic regime” guided by the principles of Shariah, or Islamic law. But the wording in some articles, such as those dealing with the equality for men and women, are either explicitly tied to strict Islamic precepts or open to interpretation. Human rights groups fear such ambiguities will allow Islamists, especially ultraconservative Salafis, to exploit the language to advance a more religious-centric state.
Article 36 states that “the state shall take all measures to establish the equality of women and men in the areas of political, cultural, economic, and social life, as well as all other areas, insofar as this does not conflict with the rulings of Islamic Shariah.”
Human Rights Watch criticized the provision as “not consistent with international human rights law.” In a report this week, the organization added that the proposed draft “contains many loopholes that would allow future authorities to repress and limit basic rights and freedoms.”
Islamists, however, were quick to defend the assembly at a news conference to kickoff a public review campaign called Know Your Constitution.
“We are very proud of this constitution. It represents all Egyptians, even the Coptic (Christian) community,” said Abdelfattah Hosseiny, an Islamist judge and assembly member. “The media creates suspense for no reason. ... We were very fair in creating this constitutional draft, we asked for suggestions from all Egyptians, including the most simple citizens.”
Some liberals have boycotted the assembly, and the proposed document must pass a referendum. A court is expected to rule next week whether to disband the assembly — possibly voiding the proposed draft — over accusations the body does not represent all Egyptians.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and other activists and politicians released a statement criticizing the assembly for “the absence of a basic understanding of things that concern the Egyptian citizen, such as basic freedom, economic and social rights.”
But Egypt’s political dynamics are propelled by Islamists, and the pivotal struggle over the tone of the constitution is mainly between Salafis and moderate Islamists, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both the Salafis and the Brotherhood will be seeking to broaden their influence in parliamentary elections expected next year.
The Brotherhood controlled nearly 50 percent of the former parliament, which was dissolved by the country’s highest court over election irregularities. The Salafis, who made about 25 percent of parliament, have been working to broaden their Islamist base by pressing for a more Islamic-rooted constitution, a strategy that has upset women, Coptic Christians, artists, writers and activists.