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Students of Ain Shams University set fire to the 2013 draft constitution book at the university in Cairo December 18, 2013. Egyptians will vote on a new constitution on Jan. 14 and 15, pushing on with the army-backed government's plan for transition back to democracy. (STRINGER/REUTERS)
Students of Ain Shams University set fire to the 2013 draft constitution book at the university in Cairo December 18, 2013. Egyptians will vote on a new constitution on Jan. 14 and 15, pushing on with the army-backed government's plan for transition back to democracy. (STRINGER/REUTERS)

PATRICK MARTIN

Egypt’s new charter stronger on personal freedoms Add to ...

A campaign to sell Egypt’s new draft constitution began in earnest this week.

It’s not the charter most Egyptians dreamed of when Hosni Mubarak was forced from office in the uprising of 2011, but the document being voted on in a national referendum next month is one most likely to succeed with an Egyptian population desperate for law, order and economic opportunity.

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The 247-article charter reflects the makeup of the committee of 50 notables who drafted the document – a healthy contingent of liberals, leftists and members of the political establishment.

It is stronger on personal freedoms, less Islamic in nature and more deferential to the security forces than the constitution hastily drawn up by an Islamist-heavy committee a year ago.

Amr Moussa, the 77-year-old former foreign minister and failed presidential candidate who chaired the constituent assembly, has predicted the charter will be passed by a comfortable majority.

His only concern was whether the turnout to vote on Jan. 14 and 15 will be big enough to give the constitution the credibility and authority it needs. He said he is hoping 75 per cent of eligible voters will go to the polls.

That 2012 constitution, ratified with only a small turnout, had been discredited as too Islamic, like the administration of Mohammed Morsi that fathered it and that was ousted from office by the army in July.

The old constitution went with Mr. Morsi, struck down in one of the first acts of the new military-backed authorities.

Already many of Mr. Morsi’s supporters have announced they will boycott the ratification election – and even disrupt the proceedings – although the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying it still was considering its options.

If passed, the new constitution would reinforce press freedoms and commit Egypt to its obligations under international rights treaties.

This constitutes “much stronger rights protection,” said Heba Morayef, Egypt director of Human Rights Watch. “You can now draw on international definitions of [fundamental rights and violations] and refer to torture under international law.”

“That’s real progress to me,” she said.

Freedom of assembly and demonstration also is declared, but critics note that freedom may be limited by a recent decree that gives security forces carte blanche to determine when any protest constitutes an illegal act.

The draft constitution holds that no media organization can be shut down because of what it writes or broadcasts, nor can any journalist be imprisoned for what he or she writes, unless it is incitement to violence or discrimination, or is libellous.

Significantly, freedom of religious belief is “inviolable,” though freedom of “religious practice” is limited to the “heavenly religions” of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Members of the Bahai and other non-Abrahamic faiths will not be happy about this.

The new draft charter maintains that “the principles of Islamic sharia [law] are the principle source of legislation.” However, the predominantly non-Islamist drafting committee eliminated or modified several of the most contentious articles in the 2012 constitution. Specifically, it got rid of the article that declared that certain legislation would be based on sharia.

“The new draft maintains the position of sharia in social conscience, but prevents any infringements on constitutional jurisdiction,” said Adel Ramadan, legal affairs officer of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who welcomed the change.

The move also means that Al-Azhar, Egypt’s leading Islamic institution, will not have ultimate authority over any legislation, as was declared during the Morsi administration.

Nader Bakkar, spokesman for the Salafist Nour Party, said his organization accepted the draft – they had one representative on the drafting committee – because the pillars of sharia law still are clearly established in the document’s preamble.

The preamble also emphasizes Egypt’s military has been a “pillar” since the 19th-century rule of Muhammad Ali.

And it hails what it calls “our patriotic army” that “delivered victory to the sweeping popular will in the January 25-June 30 Revolution,” imaginative wording that puts together the two uprisings of January, 2011, and June, 2013, as one continuous revolution.

As a pillar, the military, according to the new constitutional draft, reserves the privilege of having an independent budget determined in secret by a committee comprised of the defence minister, the president and the prime minister.

As well, it declares the defence minister must always be a member of the military – meaning Egypt will not move to civilian control of the military, a hallmark of many democracies, and that for the next two presidential terms at least the military leadership itself has the sole right to appoint that minister.

Many are critical of this deference to the military, viewing it as a weakening of presidential power. But Emad Gad, a former parliamentarian from the liberal Social Democratic Party that was founded after the 2011 revolution, it is normal for the military to be independent since Egypt is “not fully developed into a democratic state.”

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