The draft constitution for Egypt is an assault on women’s equality and press freedom and an invitation to dictatorship. It should not be rushed into law, and if it is sent to voters hastily, which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is seeking to do in an effort to undermine the opposition’s ability to organize to defeat it, then it will fail the fundamental test of a foundational document, which is to represent the aspirations of a people. It will be illegitimate.
An Islamist-dominated assembly, which included only four women, has agreed on a new constitution. There are important provisions, such as term limits for the president and a prohibition on the use of torture and arbitrary detention, privacy of communication, and freedom of assembly. These are not small things in a country that suffered for decades under dictatorship. Even provisions that provide for some independence for the country’s military, in the context of Egypt, is not necessarily bad, if it were to assume the role the military has traditionally had in Turkey, as a brake against fundamentalism.
However, the draft uses strange language in several areas, notably around women. While it promises equality for all, the only article that specifically mentions women’s rights says that the state should “balance between a woman’s obligations to family and public work.” The article also says that the “state should commit to preserving the true nature of the Egyptian family.” Elsewhere, the document declares that the state should “protect ethics and morals.” There are also provisions with worrying implications for press freedom, including those that ban blasphemy and certain forms of “insult.”
Human Rights Watch has expressed concern over the broad language of a number of provisions, and the liberal opposition sees in some of them the potential for repression. Such concerns are understandable in light of recent decrees by Mr. Morsi to grant himself sweeping new powers and to place himself above judicial oversight.
Hundreds of thousands of people have participated in protests against the decrees, and journalists and independent newspapers have suspended publishing for a day to highlight their concerns. The rush to the polls could well extinguish an important debate that needs to happen around the draft document. Just as it was two years ago after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is at a brittle moment in its transformation into a modern state.
The constituent assembly was not drafting a code of conduct for the Muslim Brotherhood. The constitution will be the basis for Egypt’s future, and will set important precedents for the Arab and Muslim world. Mr. Morsi and his confreres should not be allowed to pull a fast one.