A concise guide to the controversies over Egypt's new constitution

News article, posted 07.31.2012, from Egypt, in:
A concise guide to the controversies over Egypt's new constitution (Photo: Al Ahram))

Egypt's second Constituent Assembly is racing to finish the first integral draft of the constitution before the Islamic Holy Month of Ramadan ends three weeks from now, partially due to fears of its potential dissolution by another court order. Below is a quick breakdown of the major controversies that the constitution-drafting body still faces:

Dissolution

The first Constituent Assembly was dissolved by a landmark court ruling in April because it failed to represent “the full spectrum of Egyptian society.” The assembly was criticised for being heavily dominated by Islamists, as well as for lacking proper women or Coptic representation.

The selection process for the assembly itself was marred by controversy as the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party, allegedly settled on a list of members that they enforced upon the remainder of parliament in a vote that was effectively ceremonial. This prompted walk-outs by liberal members, parties and many representatives of Egypt’s key institutions in the assembly.

Many of the same controversies face the second Constituent Assembly. Some (though not as many) members have walked out again, with the verdict of a court case on its dissolution due at the end of the month.

Members of the current assembly have issued statements both pledging to respect the court's verdict and, at the same time, reaffirming their insistence on continuing their work even if the court dissolves it. This potentially threatens to create another standoff between the Brotherhood and Egypt's judiciary.

Saluting the flag

During a recent flag salute to the national anthem, seven Salafist members of the assembly refused to stand up with the rest of the attendance, prompting heated reactions from the media, political groups and across social networks.

Critics, consequently, questioned how the very people writing the country’s constitution could refuse to salute the flag. A detailed response by the members in question has yet to be given.

Article 2 - "principles of legislation"

The current and previous texts of Article 2 of Egypt’s constitutional documents stipulated: "Islam is the religion of the state, Arabic is the official language, and the principles of Islamic Sharia are the primary source of legislation."

Salafists have demanded either exchanging the word "principles" with "laws” or keeping the text as it is while adding a note that Al-Azhar would be the final reference and authority on matters involving disputes on the compliance of proposed legislation with the Islamic Sharia.

Another Salafist proposal was to remove the word “primary” and instead to make Sharia the sole source of legislation. Both the removal or the changing of the word "principles" and the omission of “primary” were adamantly opposed by Al-Azhar, as well as liberal forces and even Brotherhood members.

Al-Azhar argued the current text was better, as it is cognisant of different schools of Islamic jurisprudence and in line with the wider national consensus and identity. Liberal groups also see the current text as maintaining a wider toolset in the hands of legislators that would help to avoid moving in an overly theocratic direction.

Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayeb, along with others, also rejected the proposal setting the institution as an official final reference and arbitrator on legislative religious-compliance matters. They argued that it risked turning Al-Azhar into the core of a theocracy, with the Grand Sheikh becoming “an Islamic Pope.”

Article 2 - "other religions"

One proposal revolved around making an addition to the end of the article (or writing a new article all together), stipulating that "adherents of other religions may seek arbitration on their own matters through the laws of their religions." Alternatively, the annex would specify "Judaism and Christianity" by name. The third option is to keep Article 2 as is.

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