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Supra-constitutional principles bring nothing new, say experts

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By Marwa Al-A’sar and Heba Fahmy

CAIRO: The Cabinet’s draft of supra-constitutional principles brought nothing new to the table, constitutional law experts and political powers said on Monday

The draft consists of 21 principles and is divided into two segments: nine outlining the basic principles governing the state and 12 charting basic rights and freedoms.

Raafat Fouda, constitutional law professor at Cairo University, told Daily News Egypt that the principles are the same as those presented in the rights charter suggested by presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei as well as that of Al-Azhar.

A charter combining all those suggested by political powers and groups was first proposed last month by a number of political forces and leaders to be presented to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as a binding, list of entrenched constitutional principles.

“How can SCAF, as a temporary authority, approve principles governing the process of drafting a permanent constitution that will remain after it leaves power?” Fouda asked.

He said SCAF was wasting the people’s time “going round in a maze that will get them nowhere.”

On his part, Anas Gaafar, deputy dean of the Faculty of Law at Cairo University, rejected the idea of supra-constitutional principles altogether.

“The constitution is supposed to be the highest set of rules governing the country,” he said.

SCAF suspended the constitution and the two houses of parliament on Feb. 13, two days after assuming authority following the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Gaafar also ridiculed the fact that political powers are skeptical about the constituent assembly that will draft the constitution, although it hasn’t even been elected yet. Under the SCAF’s constitutional declaration, the elected parliament would choose the members of the committee. Activists and politicians have urged the SCAF to issue guidelines for selection that would ensure that the committee is representative of all Egyptians.

“We don’t know who these people are going to be…and we’re questioning their integrity already,” Gaafar told DNE.

“Even if we question their integrity, the constitution will be put forward for public referendum after it is drafted,” he said. “There is nothing to worry about.”

However, Karima El-Hifnawy, member of both the Kefaya Movement and National Association for Change (NAC), disagreed, saying, “There was plenty to worry about in the upcoming parliamentary elections.”

El-Hifnawy expressed concerns that the remnants of the former regime and other powerful parties would dominate the People’s Assembly (the Lower-House of Parliament) through bribes and corruption that had usually marred previous elections.

“It’s important to have supra-constitutional principles that all political powers can agree on during such a critical period as long as these principles guarantee there will be no military or religious rule in Egypt,” she added.

The first segment of the principles states that Egypt is a democratic country built on citizenship and the rule of law, adding that it guarantees freedom and equality to all citizens.

The fourth principle stated that Egypt is a democratic republic, enjoying peaceful transition of power, balance between all authorities, and a multi-party system.

The draft sustained article two of the suspended 1971 constitution and the current constitutional decree, like ElBaradei’s and Al-Azhar’s charters.

Article 2 stipulates that Islam is the religion of the state and that Islamic Sharia Law is the principal source of legislation.

Many experts have argued that despite some calls to reconsider this article, the Egyptian people would never accept scrapping it, out of fear of eliminating their religious identify.

However, Article 2 of the draft added that Jews and Christians would be allowed to have their own religious reference when it comes to personal and religious issues, subliminally reinforcing the rights of followers of two other monotheistic religions while excluded others like Bahaa’is.

The first segment added a couple of principles that were not presented before in other proposed charters including an emphasis on the importance of preserving the Nile water and preventing its pollution.

“This way the world will know that the importance of the Nile’s water to Egyptians has risen to the level of inclusion in the constitution,” Fouda said.

This principle, he continued, would prevent any ruler from abusing the Nile water or wasting its resources as Mubarak did.

Islamists, meanwhile, reiterated their earlier rejection of the principles.

“Regardless of being officially released or not, we totally reject these principles,” senior member of El-Gama’a El-Islamiya Safwat Abdel-Ghani told DNE.

“If the constitution itself has to be drafted by an elected committee before being approved by the public, how come the principles that regulate it are imposed this way … or approved by a certain group of people without seeking consensus?” he asked.

Abdel-Ghani further said the concept of a “civil state” has to be defined clearly as the group is against the concept of a secular country. “Religion covers all aspects of life,” he said.

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Egypt’s largest organized political group, shares the same view.

“We don’t accept the initiative in principle,” deputy head of the Brotherhood Rashad Bayoumy told DNE.

“Setting principles that regulate the constitution circumvents the will of the people … which I call the dictatorship of the minority,” he added. “Ballot boxes represent the only means to resolve such issues.”

“If we agree on these principles now, then we open the door for similar calls. No group has the right to impose its will on the people,” Bayoumy said.

Earlier last week, Islamist lawyer Mamdouh Ismail had reportedly served Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and his deputy Ali Al-Selmy with a court memo, warning them against the charter.

The Front of the People’s Will also launched a campaign calling on Egyptians to send one million faxes and emails to Cabinet to denounce the principles.

“I wonder why Islamists fear these principles as long as Article 2 is in place,” Mohamed Farag, assistant secretary general of El-Tagammu Party, told DNE.

“It seems there are trends within the political Islamists that are even afraid of the constitution itself … or adopt the slogan ‘Quran is our constitution,’” he added. “These principles reiterate the core of the constitution … and are not meant to surpass the constitution.”

Last March, 77.2 percent of voters approved a referendum on constitutional amendments which charted a clear political path of holding legislative elections before drafting a new constitution.

Those who voted no accused the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups of exploiting religion to sway people towards a yes vote, arguably to hasten parliamentary elections that would benefit them at the polls.

The amendments have been the subject of major controversy since they were first proposed. Several political forces have been calling for drafting a new constitution prior to parliamentary and presidential elections, rejecting the modifications to the 1971 charter.

On March 30, SCAF announced a 62-artcile constitutional decree that incorporated the 11 amendments of the referendum to be the basis for drafting the constitution after the presidential and parliamentary polls are held.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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