The controversy surrounding Egypt’s constitution marks a tipping point for the political crisis that has been taking place for the past 20 months. During this turbulent transitional period, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the most influential political force in major Arab countries alongside the sudden rise of the Salafists in the political arena.
Politicians and civil-society representatives who are members of the Constituent Assembly, charged with drafting a new constitution for Egypt, rushed to release a draft constitution. This comes prior to the end of the assembly’s tenure — in late 2012 — and as Egypt is awaiting the court’s decision whether to challenge the legitimacy of this assembly. This draft constitution was meant to reflect the spirit of the January 25 revolution, guarantee the basic rights of citizens and put an end to the authoritarian regime, while promoting the principles of Islamic law. However, the dominance of the Islamists — namely the Brotherhood and the Salafists — over the Constituent Assembly worried liberals, secularists and activists concerned with personal freedoms and women’s rights. There were fears that the upcoming constitution might drag Egypt back in time.
Indeed, some of the articles contained within the recently-published draft constitution caused great uncertainty regarding the future of Egypt, especially pertaining to the role of religion in rule. In principle, the Salafists retracted their demand to make Islamic law, instead of the principles of Islamic law, the only source of legislation. However, they succeeded in imposing an article — which is still under discussion — that serves the same goal, by giving Al-Azhar the final word in determining whether government laws comply with the principles of Islamic law. This is a measure that grants an unelected religious authority, which cannot be held accountable, powers similar to that of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
On the other hand, the focus on the role of religion in the constitution diverted attention away from other issues that are supposed to be the basis of a new Egypt. These include setting the balance of power within government agencies, scrutiny over military affairs and the protection of civil liberties and rights. A number of human rights and political activists have criticized serious flaws in the draft constitution, namely pertaining to civil rights and liberties. Even though the draft constitution guaranteed basic political and economic rights, it did not adhere to international law on human rights, women’s and children’s rights, religious freedoms, freedom of expression and torture.
According to legal specialists, some articles within the draft constitution would take the country back in time to before the 1971 constitution. Regarding the freedom of the press, the draft constitution allows the government to close down a newspaper or press publication based on a court order. This was cancelled in 2006 under Mubarak’s rule and is not something worthy of the revolution that erupted to rid Egyptians of tyranny. The articles that regulate the conduct of the judiciary were completely rejected by the Supreme Constitutional Court, which will determine the fate of the Constituent Assembly.
The constitution in its current form does not meet the aspirations of the revolution. The constitution is creating further concerns and rifts in Egypt, instead of paving the way for a new beginning.