Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Debate Over Egypt’s Draft Constitution

by Isobel Coleman
October 18, 2012

The members of Egypt's constitution committee meet in Cairo on September 11, 2012 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). The members of Egypt's constitution committee meet in Cairo on September 11, 2012 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

Egypt is deep into the messy process of drafting its new constitution. In the past few weeks, two different drafts were released within days of each other. Not surprisingly, there are several areas of major contention. At the heart of the matter are profoundly different views between religious conservatives and secular liberals on such touchstone issues as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and women’s rights.

These differences come to a head in specific articles, beginning right up front with Article Two which states that “Islam is the state religion, Arabic is the official language, and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main source of legislation.” This language is virtually identical to that in the 1971 Constitution. Yet, some Salafists are calling for Islamic law to have an even more explicit role in the constitution. Others, including the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and representatives from the Christian community, want to keep Article Two as it has been. No doubt Article Two will remain a divisive issue.

Interestingly, the most recent draft of the constitution added an article about Al-Azhar, the university and leading center of Islamic thought in Egypt. The new article affirms Al-Azhar as an “independent Islamic body” and that Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam “shall be independent and cannot be removed from office.” It also states that “the opinion of Al-Azhar’s Council of Grand Scholars shall be taken in matters related to Islamic sharia.” For months there has been growing concern that Al-Azhar has become a battleground for influence and control in Egypt. Apparently, the new reference to Al-Azhar in the draft constitution was a sop to the Salafists, but secularists are crying foul. Journalist Roula Khalaf calls it  “…the most egregious clause the Salafis have pushed for (and which deserves the strongest opposition)” and warns that it would give Al-Azhar “the sole right to interpret sharia, a move that would in essence create a higher, unelected religious authority.”

Women’s rights are likewise controversial. Article Sixty-Eight of the draft constitution (sometimes called Article Thirty-Six, a reference to an earlier version) refers to women’s rights, saying, “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.” Various sources note a difference in language between “principles of Islamic Law” referred to in Article Two of the draft constitution versus “rulings” in this clause, a much less flexible term.

Other Muslim-majority countries that have adopted new constitutions in recent years have also struggled with how to reconcile appeals to Islamic law with demands for human rights guarantees. Iraqis argued for months in 2005 over the role of Islam in their new constitution. They ended up with potentially conflicting clauses—one stating that Iraqis are equal before the law “without discrimination because of sex” and another saying that no law can be passed that contradicts the “established rulings” of Islam.

Egypt still has a long road ahead with respect to its new constitution. On October 23, a court will determine whether Egypt’s Constitutional Assembly is even legal, ruling on a lawsuit raised by liberals to address the outsized representation of Islamists on the Constitutional Assembly. (This is just one of over 40 legal challenges that liberals have tried to use to dissolve the panel).

One positive development is that Egyptian citizens are very much engaged in the debates over constitutional language, not only on the streets, but also through social media. There is even an innovative government-run website that allows people to log in through Facebook to comment on the articles. Already, there are 14,000 comments alone on Article Two with a full range of perspectives on what role Islam should have in the new constitution.

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