The proposed Egyptian constitution offers something to everyone, and its supporters know how to address the audience.
Article 3 gives Christians and Jews the right to govern their communities according to the internal rules of their religion. Articles 31-80 give liberally-minded citizens assurances on a litany of basic rights, including expression, belief, education, and even playing sports.
Less heard in the West, however, is the local message: articles designed for conservative Salafi Muslims may undermine every other guarantee.
‘This constitution has restrictions [on rights and freedoms] that have never been included in any Egyptian constitution before,’ said Sheikh Yasser al-Burhami, Egypt’s leading Salafi and founder of the Salafi Call, on a YouTube video attempting to convince his community to vote for a document many of them find not restrictive enough.
Ibrahim Eid is another leading spokesman for those who seek to return Egypt to the ancestral ways and beliefs of Arabia. An ophthalmologist and media coordinator for Students of Sharia, a Salafi association, he told Lapido: ‘There are two aspects to this constitution: that which designs a political system, and that which legitimizes it. I reject its legitimacy completely’.
Sovereignty belongs to God alone, he says.
Article 5 is therefore an anathema. It states: ‘Sovereignty is for the people alone and they are the source of authority. The people shall exercise and protect this sovereignty, and safeguard national unity in the manner specified in the Constitution.’
‘Is it reasonable to justify God’s law by a constitution, or to submit it to a referendum? Not at all!’ he said.
‘But we agree to its political necessity for the sake of the stability of the nation.
‘Let’s move through this crisis, elect a new parliament, and then the first thing they will do is change the defective articles.’
Bishop Mouneer Anis of Egypt’s Episcopal (Anglican) Church finds defective articles as well, but of the opposite kind.
‘This constitution does not lead to social cohesion, but to division,’ he told Lapido Media, as preliminary results of the first round referendum suggested 43 per cent of the population reject it. ‘It does not ensure the freedom of the minority to the extent Egypt was expecting.
‘But it ensures the rule of the majority and has many questionable, vague expressions.’
These are the very expressions Burhami celebrates, witnessed chiefly in the dispute over Article 2, defining the identity of the Egyptian state.
In the previous constitution, Article 2 declared the ‘principles’ of Sharia law to be the primary source of legislation. Egypt’s High Constitutional Court consistently interpreted the word ‘principles’ in a general fashion, avoiding direct reference to specific Islamic laws.
Liberal members of the 100-person Islamist-dominated committee writing the constitution were able to fend off Salafi demands to remove the word ‘principles’ and force legislation toward Sharia alone.
But to satisfy the Salafis, the committee added Article 219, to interpret ‘principles’ in accordance with traditional Islamic jurisprudence. Furthermore, Article 4 assigns an unelected body of Islamic scholars the right of consultation on legislation.
Burhami’s chief pride, however, is in Article 81, concluding the extended section on rights and freedoms. It seeks an elusive compromise.
‘No law that regulates the practice of the rights and freedoms shall include what would constrain their essence,’ reads the text. But what follows defines this essence:
‘Such rights and freedoms shall be practised in a manner not conflicting with the principles pertaining to state and society included in Part One of this constitution.’
Part One however includes Article 2 which is defined by Article 219, subjecting all freedom to Islamic Sharia.
‘What is the problem with being an Islamic state? Egypt is Islamic and there is nothing else to be said,’ the Muslim Brotherhood’s Gamal Nassar tells Lapido.
Nassar is a founding member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. He believes the discussion of these details ignores the agreement on 90 percent of the constitution.
‘No one, even among the liberals, opposes the Sharia. This is at heart a political struggle,’ he said.
‘All freedoms must be regulated and not go against the nature of Egyptian society, which is Muslim.’
Nassar sees the nature of the politics in the behaviour of the church, which resigned from the constitution writing committee.
He accuses church representatives of negotiating the agreement of all articles, including Article 219, and then withdrawing suddenly to cause controversy and discredit the committee’s work.
Revd. Safwat el-Baiady, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt and one of these official representatives, disagrees – and strongly. He sees a different type of politics at play.
‘This article  was added late and not discussed in any sub-committee,’ he told Lapido Media. ‘Because of its controversy it was postponed until the end, and dealt with only in the concluding consensus committee.’
The problem with this he said was that this consensus committee was no consensus at all, but a small number of members handpicked by the assembly head. It included a Christian, but no official members of the church.
Church representatives, and liberal Muslim members, resigned in protest en masse only once it dawned on them that Article 219 and other controversial aspects were to be presented as if it were the will of the entire body – which was not the case.
A constitution is ideally built on consensus, but it is fleshed out though law. Egypt’s constitution, if it passes, gives something to everyone.
The gift to Salafis, offered freely by the Muslim Brotherhood, is an open door to Sharia law and the conformity of legislation to it.
Egypt’s future freedoms hinge on the make-up of the next parliament, tasked with the contentious business of interpretation.
Note: The 2011 Egyptian parliament, dissolved by court order, was led by the Muslim Brotherhood-led Democratic Alliance, claiming 45 per cent of 498 seats. The Islamist Bloc, led by the Salafi Nour Party, finished second with a quarter (25 per cent) of seats. Two liberal parties received roughly 7 per cent each. Two Copts were elected to parliament, and of the ten members appointed by the then-ruling military council, five were Copts.
Article 229 of the proposed constitution declares procedures for electing the new parliament will begin no less than 60 days after it is ratified, possibly this weekend, following the second referendum vote.
This article was first published on Lapido Media.
- What Egyptian Christians Think of Hastily Completed Constitution – December 1, 2012
- Egyptian Churches Give Up on Helping Create New Constitution – November 21, 2012
- ‘Under God’ and the Egyptian Constitution – July 18, 2011