The upcoming referendum on the new constitution has been on the minds of many columnists. Predictably, many columns are concerned with dissecting the new constitution and exploring its pros and cons.
The constitution and its political and geographic disasters
Mohamed Othman Al-Khesht
Al Watan Newspaper
Columnist Al-Khesht explores how the political blunders following after 25 January 2011 hindered the revolution, lamenting the three-year delay in implementing its aims. However he indicates that “the first step is about to be completed: The constitution’s draft has been written and all that is left is its ratification.”
Through his columns, Al-Khesht says he has attempted to advise the Constituent Assembly. “A strong but not dictatorial ruler is essential; fair but not oppressive,” he says, adding that order does not justify dictatorship. He warns of a constitution which masks dictatorship under the guise of democracy.
Al-Khesht further explains that this means returning to an understanding of Islam which does not polarise, but one that seeks common ground and mutual understanding. He adds that even though there are some objections to the current draft of the constitution, “it is a bridge to safety.” He then outlines his reasons for the ratification of the constitution.
Firstly, Al-Khesht reasons that the new constitution strengthens the state apparatus and decreases the powers of the president. “It presents [us] with a partially presidential system and balances between [the different] powers, therefore it prevents [us] from creating a new dictator,” Al-Khesht writes.
Secondly, Al-Khesht writes that the new constitution promotes freedom and personal rights. “It is committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements concerning human rights which Egypt ratified,” says, and points out that the new constitution gives women more rights such the right to be appointed in the judiciary and other legal bodies, and provides mechanisms to protect them from violence.
Third, the constitution protects freedom of worship, and promises to build places of worship for the three celestial religions as regulated by law.
Fourth, the state is committed to solve the problem of illegal construction and informal housing and promises to provide alternatives. The new constitution Al-Khesht points out is also committed to improve “the quality of life and the health of citizens.”
Fifth, the constitution dictates that governmental spending on education will not be less than 4% of the Gross National Product (GNP).
Sixth, in response to perhaps the most contentious issue, the military trials of civilians, Al-Khesht points out that the new constitution restricts the mandates of military courts and that these courts are only concerned with a limited number of offences stating that “there are only 14 specific crimes such as the assault on military facilities,” which would fall under the jurisdiction of military courts. He emphasises that this is an improvement of the 2012 constitution which did not specify the crimes in which military courts would have authority.
Al-Khesht concludes his argument stating that enforcing rather than implementing the new constitution remains the biggest challenge.
The intelligent reader’s guide to understanding the new constitution
Mostafa Kamel Al-Sayed
Al-Sayed starts his column by reviewing the parties which were most interested in the process of drafting the new constitution: the armed forces, civil forces that participated in the second wave of the January revolution, religious organisations such as Al-Nour Party, Al-Azhar and “the churches.” Al-Sayed, also points out that the Muslim Brotherhood was absent from the drafting of the new constitution.
He adds that these parties used whatever power they had to steer the process in various directions that would serve their own interests. The most powerful of these was the armed forces, despite the fact that it did not represent the majority in the Constitutional Assembly. However Al-Sayad points out that the armed forces were able to exercise a disproportionate hold on the delegation due to its strict “influence on the political community.”
Al-Sayed believes that both religious and civil political groups are heavily influenced by the armed forces, allowing the military to have a major role in drafting the new constitution. Al-Nour Party made many concessions in order to avoid the implementation of Article 74, which prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion.
“Al-Azhar representatives were satisfied with the mere mentioning of Al-Azhar in the constitution. They conceded to the necessity of consulting it in anything related to Sharia as dictated in the 2012 constitution,” Al-Sayed writes. He adds that the only argument in which religious parties were engaged concerned the inclusion of the term “civil state” resulting in a final verdict in which the assembly agreed upon the term “a civil government.”
Al-Sayed believes that civil parties exercised a disproportionate amount of influence within the assembly, which does not accurately reflect their support on the ground. He explains that the committee’s different commissions were comprised mainly of people from civil society. He adds that the assembly had to concede to pressure from religious parties, which influence a large section of the society and also in fear of what supporters of the Brotherhood might do during the referendum.
As a result of this pressure, the term “non-Muslims” was eliminated from Article 3 as was the idea of a “civil state.”
Al-Sayed believes those belonging to factional interests were able to “preserve the rights that they were given in the 2012 constitution”. Pointing out that even though the constitutional court regained its prior status before the 2012 constitution, the draft did not specify the number of judicial members in this court. It also did not enable non-judiciary entities to nominate members for the constitutional court. In addition, the workers and farmers were unable to maintain their 50% quota in the new parliament.
Al-Sayed explains that the armed forces – through its representative in the assembly – did not offer any concessions or let go of any of its demands. Its budget remains untouchable as it is presented as a number to the parliament and it is not subject to discussion.
Further jurisdiction of military courts and their right to try civilians remains ambiguous and open to interpretation. The appointment of the defence minister can only appointed with the agreement of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). This leaves the control of the armed forces outside the authority of a civilian rule.
Al-Sayed points out that a party absent from the political process entirely, namely the National Democratic Party, incidentally made great gains in the new constitution. For example, the new constitution dropped the article banning members of the former regime from assuming roles in the new government. Al-Sayed mentions that this might be due to the constitutional court’s objection to that article which was passed in the 2012 constitution.
Al-Sayed concludes, however, that despite all of these objections, the constitution remains the best option for Egyptians seeking progress.