Human Rights Watch condemns new constitution

Ahmed Aboulenein
5 Min Read
Protesters gather outside the Shura Council building to protest against article 36 of the proposed constitution (File photo) Hassan Ibrahim / DNE
Protesters gather outside the Shura Council building to protest against article 36 of the proposed constitution (File photo) Hassan Ibrahim / DNE
Protesters gather outside the Shura Council building to protest against article 36 of the proposed constitution (File photo)
Hassan Ibrahim / DNE

Egypt’s constitution in the making is inconsistent with, and at times in opposition to, international laws and treaties, Human Rights Watch said on Monday.

In a letter directed at members of the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution. The international human rights organisation pinpointed several articles revealed in the first draft of the constitution, which are against the principles of human rights, as well as the international laws and treaties to which Egypt is signatory. Major issued raised included gender equality, torture, and freedom of religion.

“The Constituent Assembly has a landmark opportunity to lay the groundwork for respecting human rights in tomorrow’s Egypt, but its current draft fails to meet that standard because of vague language or limitations that destroy the essence of many rights,” said Nadim Houry, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch in a press release.

The letter urged the Constituent Assembly to include a general article or clause which directly incorporates international treaties ratified by Egypt into Egyptian law.

Members of the Constituent Assembly, such as Muslim Brotherhood lawyer, Sobhy Saleh, have recently come out against some international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), describing it as against Islamic law.

The comment was in reference to Article 36 of the constitution, which limits gender equality to “insofar as this does not conflict with the rulings of Islamic Shari’a.” Saleh claimed the clause was included in the article to circumvent treaties like CEDAW which would force Egypt into legislating for gay marriage, and gender equality within inheritance laws, as well as against polygamy.

The HRW letter said Article 36 was inconsistent with treaties Egypt has signed and urged Constituent Assembly members to remove it.

Human Rights Watch’s letter also urged Constituent Assembly members to strengthen articles related to torture. The related article at the moment only prohibits “physical or psychological harm,” and does not criminalise torture outright.

“It is particularly shocking that Egypt’s post-Mubarak constitution does not mention the word torture but instead refers only to lesser forms of physical harm,” said Houry.

The letter also discussed the articles related to freedom of religion. The controversial Article 8 on freedom of religion states that “freedom of religion is absolute, and practices shall be conducted in accordance with public order. The state shall ensure freedom to establish places of worship for adherents of Abrahamic religions in accordance with the law.”

Human Rights Watch’s letter urged the Constituent Assembly to remove the phrase “adherents of Abrahamic religions” as it discriminates against adherents of other faiths, specifically Egypt’s Baha’i community.

Another article, although still being discussed and not yet included on the draft, states that “the divine being is protected and any criticism thereof is prohibited, as are the prophets of God and all of his messengers, the mothers of the faithful and the rightly guided caliphs.” Such an article, Human Rights Watch argues, is directed against Egypt’s Shi’a Muslims who do not view the “rightly guided caliphs” favourably in their beliefs.

It also commented on Article 2 of the constitution, which addresses the main source of legislation. The article in the draft remains the same as that of the 1971 constitution and states “principles of Shari’a are the main source of legislation.”

However, Salafi members of the Constituent Assembly have pushed for the replacement of the term principles with “rulings” of Shari’a, which would mean a more literal interpretation of Islamic laws.

These Salafi members have also proposed a follow-up article which would establish Al-Azhar as the only body allowed to interpret all Shari’a related issues, meaning it would have to approve all legislation before it passes. Al-Azhar is an unelected body which does not lie under judicial review. Human Rights Law advocated the article’s removal and the maintaining of Article 2’s original phrasing.

Human Rights Watch also urged the Constituent Assembly to amend or reconsider articles related to freedom of expression; children’s rights; forced labour, trafficking and slavery; privacy, freedom of accusation, and the right to a fair trial.

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Ahmed Aboul Enein is an Egyptian journalist who hates writing about himself in the third person. Follow him on Twitter @aaboulenein
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