Secularists and Islamists exchange accusations over Egypt's new constitution

Egypt's 50-Member Committee is in the final weeks of drafting the country's new constitution, with as much as 50 percent of the document already drafted and approved in a first reading, according to committee media spokesperson Mohamed Salmawy.

"As for the remaining 50 percent of the new constitution," Salmawy told Ahram Online, "this is expected to be written soon, after which open and televised meetings will be held to begin the second — and final — reading of the document."

Salmawy explained that the constitutional declaration issued by Interim President Adly Mansour on 8 July states that "the committee has 60 work days — and not two months — to finish its task." "We have almost finished half of these days and we are due to finish them completely by 3 December," said Salmawy.

Salmawy explained that, "The committee has almost finished the first reading of the constitution's chapters on freedoms and rights and the rule of law (chapters 3 and 4, comprising around 75 articles) and then moved to hold a vote on whether a second, upper house of parliament must be maintained or not." Salmawy indicated that, "It was important to put this controversial issue to a vote before we go on continuing our first reading of the remaining chapters of the constitution, so the committee can ultimately formulate the final form of Egypt's political system in the new constitution."

Salmawy indicated that, "As most members rejected the creation of another upper house, the committee has begun re-drafting the articles regulating the performance of the lower house parliament — on which it has not been yet decided whether its name will be the House of Representatives or the People's Assembly."

According to Salmawy, the total number of the constitution's articles is expected to be a little more than 200. "I expect it to be 203 articles," said Salmawy.

Salmawy indicated that beginning on Saturday, the committee has begun the first reading of chapters 1 and 2, on the state and the foundational principles of society respectively. "These chapters are highly thorny in the sense that they include some controversial articles on Islamic Sharia and the so-called 'identity articles'," said Salmawy.

Discussion of these articles was characterised by a heated exchange of accusations between representatives of Islamist forces (mainly the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party and the Sunni Islam Al-Azhar institution) on the one side, and seculars and representatives of Egyptian churches on the other.

Bishop Paula, representative of the Coptic Church, threatened to withdraw from the committee in protest against the seeming capacity of Nour Party to impose its "Islamic radical views" on the committee. "I see that some leading secular members of the committee are trying their best to satisfy Nour Party, even if this means that the new document would be a constitution for Islamists rather than for all Egyptians," said Paula.

Paula said he was surprised that seculars voted for eliminating the world "civilian" from the first article of the draft constitution. "It seems that this was adopted in return for Salafists approving that the content of Article 219, defining Islamic Sharia, be made part of the constitution's preamble," said Paula.

In response, Salmawy stressed that Article 219 (introduced in the 2012 Constitution, which was widely seen as a text drafted by and tailored for Islamists) will never be part of the new constitution. He disclosed that members — including Al-Azhar's representative and the Grand Mufti — agreed that there is no need for a separate article defining Islamic Sharia and that "all must adopt the definition put by the High Constitutional Court (HCC) for principles of Islamic Sharia in 1996."

As for the word "civilian" in Article 1, Salmawy said seculars agreed that there is no need for this word as long as other articles of the constitution impose an outright ban on the formation of religious parties, and on any activities mixing religion and politics.

Salmawy also stressed that seculars teamed up to reject the Salafist Nour Party pressing hard to change Article 2. "Article 2 was maintained, stating that principles of Islamic Sharia — rather than Islamic Sharia as demanded by Nour — are the major source of legislation in Egypt," said Salmawy.

As for Article 3, Salmawy indicated that Nour and Al-Azhar strongly rejected amending it to grant freedom to all non-Muslim Egyptians to exercise their religious rites. "Seculars approved after Al-Azhar clerics insisted that the text stating that Egyptian Christians and Jews — rather than non-Muslim Egyptians — are free to exercise their religious rites is maintained," said Salmawy.

Salmawy also revealed that seculars rejected pressure to amend Article 4 to give grand clerics of Al-Azhar a say on Islamic Sharia matters. "Al-Azhar itself joined forces, arguing that it does not want to have any role in this respect and that the whole matter must be left to the High (Constitutional) Court," said Salmawy, explaining that, "Seculars insisted that in a new Egypt standing against mixing religion with politics, Islamic clerics should be stripped of exercising any monopoly over religious matters and that Egypt should not turn into another Iran with Shia ayatollahs having a dominant role over the lives of citizens," said Salmawy.

Salmawy indicated that, "The committee is about to finalise the first reading of the first and second chapters of the constitution (the State and Foundational Principles of Society) on Sunday." "After this, we will move to the chapter on the system of governance, which is the longest, with 108 articles regulating the performance of the three executive, legislative and judicial branches, not to mention the military and police authorities," said Salmawy.

Salmawy indicated that the first chapter included several new articles. Prominent among these are articles obliging the state to allocate three percent of GDP to spending on health and four percent on education.

Ahmed Eid, a journalist and a member of the 50-Member Committee, told parliamentary correspondents that Article 11 was amended to state, for the first time, that "Women must have a balanced representation in parliament and city councils." Eid indicated that Nour Party objected upon the grounds that the new draft did not include the words "without contravention of Islamic Sharia." "Secular members said Article 2 is quite enough and it entails that all the remaining articles of the constitution are guided by principles of Islamic Sharia," said Eid.

Salmawy said other new articles include "maintaining the right of workers to organise a peaceful strike," and "obliging the state to implement a national health insurance system." "We also have another article that states that education is free, but it must be provided in accordance with international quality standards," said Salmawy. He further added: "There is another article obliging the state to forge a strategy aimed at stamping out illiteracy within a defined timeframe, with the help of civil society organisations."

Salmawy indicated the promulgation of Egypt's new constitution will require reviewing the country's arsenal of political, economic and social legislation. "Egypt has around 63,000 laws, with some of them too old and many contradicting each other. The role of the new parliament is to review all of these to reflect the new constitution," said Salmawy.