Rights and freedoms have been at the forefront of the constitutional debate gripping Egypt, with several leaks from inside the Constituent Assembly introducing articles which drew the scorn of several rights groups and political parties.
The article on human dignity, the rights section’s first article, is a double-edged sword. Although it states human dignity is a right and that the state and society have to respect it, it also stipulates, “under no circumstance may a citizen be insulted or disrespected” which can be interpreted to allow for legislation which limits freedom of speech or even lead to imprisonment, in the ilk of contempt of religion laws.
Article 37 on freedom of religion is contradictory and does not grant true freedom of belief. It says that “freedom of thought is protected” but also limits the right to worship in that it allows only adherents of the “heavenly” religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, to build places of worship.
This article would stop other religious groups, most notably Egypt’s minority Baha’i community, from building places of worship. The article also leaves building places of worship to the regulation of the law, meaning surviving Ottoman-era legislation on the construction of churches could remain in place and that churches could only be built with prior governmental approval while mosques were freely constructed.
The following article, which reads “insulting or attacking any of the prophets and messengers is prohibited” limits freedom of expression and stifles inter-faith dialogue, especially as the terms “insult” and “attack” are not clearly defined.
The article on freedom of thought and speech says that both are guaranteed rights that could be expressed verbally or in written, photographic formats or otherwise. It is contradicted by its two preceding articles, which limit freedom of worship, and ban criticism of certain historical figures, as well as the previous article banning the “insult” or “disrespect” of all citizens.
The rights section also grants freedom of information in Article 41, but limits access to information when the state determines a request which endangers “national security or violates privacy” meaning the state could deny the supplying of information under the guise of any of these exceptions. National security, for example, has often been used as a reason for lack of government transparency over things like military budgets and armament.
Article 45 allows citizens to organise unarmed protests and public meetings but makes it so that the organisers have to inform the state.
This article allows the government the method of determining how it should be informed, for example the law could ask for an advance notice period of weeks or even months. It also outlaws protests the state does not know about in advance.
In addition to personal and political rights, economic and social rights are also not properly guaranteed in the draft.
Although the rights section mentions the right to education, health, work and social security, the articles all use weak phrasing that indicates they are “protected rights” or “guaranteed” without mentioning the responsibility of the state explicitly to enforce them, while other articles say that the state “attempts to,” instead of is obliged to, ensure these rights.
Article 67 says that it is illegal to employ children who have not passed the age of “mandatory education” but does not define that age, leaving room for child labour and abuse.
The infamous gender equality article also survived in the draft, unchanged despite the strong backlash it received last month. It still states that men and women are equal only within the rulings of Islamic Shari’a law.
If passed this way, the article would be a blow to the women’s rights movement as it could be interpreted in several ways. Some of interpretations might lead to banning women from travel or work without the approval of a male relative or spouse or even legalising domestic abuse.
An article prohibiting slavery, the sex trade and human trafficking has been subject to controversy. The phrase “female and child trafficking” was replaced with the less powerful “abuse of child and women’s rights” which leaves room for human trafficking as the constitution does not outright outlaw it.
The debate over the trafficking article started when Islamist members of the Constituent Assembly called for the removal of the trafficking phrase as some felt the phenomena does not exist in Egypt and thus was not worth mentioning, while others argued that the phrase would mean that underage marriage would be outlawed, as this would be defined as “trafficking”, which they disagreed with, arguing that girls should be able to get married once they can have children.
Finally, there is a vague article that says, “preserving national unity and protecting national security is a duty on the part of the state and society.” Again, vague articles like these leave room for state abuses under the guise of abiding with the constitution, since citizens could be arrested or fined for example, for failing to preserve national unity or protecting national security.