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Egypt unveils draft of new constitution

The proposed draft states Egypt will be guided by the principles of sharia, or Islamic law. Critics say loopholes could mean limits on basic rights or freedoms.

October 10, 2012|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • An activist carries a sign that reads, "The woman's voice is a revolution," during a demonstration this month in Cairo protesting Egypt's constitutional assembly.
An activist carries a sign that reads, "The woman's voice is… (Nasser Nasser / Associated…)

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 of 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 United States and other Western powers.

The draft states that Egypt is "a democratic regime" guided by the principles of sharia, or Islamic law. But the wording in some articles, such as those dealing with equality for men and women, are either explicitly tied to strict Islamic precepts or open to interpretation. Human rights groups fear such ambiguity will allow Islamists, especially ultraconservative Salafis, to exploit the language to advance a more religion-centric state.

Article 36 stipulates 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 sharia."

Human Rights Watch criticized the provision as "not consistent with international human rights law." In a report this week, the organization said 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 kick off 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 be approved in a referendum. A court is expected to rule next week on whether to disband the assembly, possibly voiding the proposed draft, over accusations that 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% of the former parliament, which was dissolved by the country's highest court over election irregularities. The Salafis, who made about 25% 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.

Liberals and rights groups are especially troubled by Salafi attempts to in effect grant Al Azhar, Sunni Islam's most revered university, the power to influence legislation. So far, that provision is not in the draft document, but it remains a contentious issue among Islamists.

Human Rights Watch did credit parts of the draft for upholding political and economic rights, including forbidding the creation of special or military courts to try civilians, a tactic used often by Mubarak and the former ruling military council.

But critics say the draft document attempts to enshrine an all-powerful state that imposes a single identity on its people. In a recent essay in the Egypt Independent newspaper headlined "Fascism in our new constitution," Sherif Younis, a university lecturer on Egyptian and European modern history, wrote:

"The draft constitution defines citizens as those whose identity is primarily Islamic, and, secondly, nationals of the country. In this conception of citizenship, the state aims to control and hegemonize citizens' visions, stances and beliefs, working to entrench them and produce standardized citizens."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif in Cairo contributed to this report.

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