Egyptian Constitution: Army Strengthened, Religious Parties Banned, Freedom of Belief, Speech Enshrined

Over half the articles of the proposed constitution for Egypt were approved by the “Committee of 50″ on Saturday. The rest will be taken up on Sunday. The voting was on a majority vote basis, but in any case only rare articles attracted more than one or two “no” votes. This constitution replaces both the 1971 organic law and the 2012 Muslim Brotherhood constitution that succeeded it. It is in some large part modeled on the constitution of the Fifth Republic in France.

This constitution is significantly more secular than the one of 2012. It guarantees absolute freedom of faith and belief. It removes a provision that would have allowed the al-Azhar Seminary to pronounce on the parts of Egyptian law directly drawn from the Muslim legal code or shariah. It forbids the formation of political parties based on religion (i.e. it bans the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood from contesting elections, since religion is in its platform). It should be noted that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in Germany would be illegal according to this constitution. And, I suspect, many Evangelical politicians in the Republican Party in the US would be expelled from Congress. What I can’t understand is that the Salafi Nour Party says it is all right with this constitution, even though as far as I can tell it might well require the dissolution of that party.

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On the other hand, the constitution contains some key contradictions. It forbids insulting prophets (i.e. Moses, Jesus, Muhammad), and it says that Islamic law is the principal source of legislation. (Fundamentalists wanted to remove the qualifier “principal” but failed). It says Coptic Christians and Muslims will each be governed in personal status matters by the laws of their religion (regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.) It would be better to have a uniform civil code. So it contains some religious principles. In fact, it leaves many issues to be governed by subsequent statute as passed by the parliament (which will be a single chamber— the Committee of 50 is abolishing the largely ceremonial upper house, which had become a tool of rule for the Muslim Brotherhood president, Muhammad Morsi).

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the top 23 officers, is given the right to approve the choice of Minister of Defense for the next two presidential terms, i.e. for 8 years beginning next summer. This step is intended to prevent a repeat of the Morsi period, when the Muslim Brotherhood appointed Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi because they thought he was pious. In the end, whatever his religious beliefs, he overthrew the Brotherhood government that was elected in June, 2012.

forbids torture and makes it a crime with no statute of limitations. If this provision is ever actually implemented, it will be a major gain of the youth activists such as Wael Abbas who campaigned against police torture from the middle of the last decade. The government of Muhammad Morsi was criticized for not having in fact stopped police torture.

The old socialist provision of the 1971 constitution that set aside half of seats in parliament for peasants and workers was abolished. Egyptian socialists were angered and worried that the next parliament would be peopled by millionaires (welcome to our world). But the fact is that many deputies who ran as independents for those worker seats were very well off. In the Mubarak period they usually joined the National Democratic Party as soon as parliament convened, so they were hardly independents in fact. The right to form unions will be regulated by statute, which is not a good sign.

The constitution is a very mixed bag, with some good provisions and some horrible ones. It says people can hold private meetings without seeking permission, which is a major step away from the old Egyptian police state. But that provision seems to contradict the just-passed law forbidding demonstrations unless they are licensed by the police.

It is also good on the treatment of children and forbidding human trafficking. The Muslim Brotherhood government had opposed such a prohibition on the grounds that it might end up being used to forbid early marriage of girls (according to Hiba Morayef of Human Rights Watch via Twitter).

It says that international treaties signed by the Egyptian government become domestic law. It also says that citizens can sue the government and officials if they try to deprive the citizens of their guaranteed rights. Since the Egyptian state has insincerely signed a lot of international treaties and instruments on human rights, the Committee of 50 is setting up Egyptian lawyers to get very busy and very rich.

Mada Misr discusses the vote on many of the controversial articles. Five committee members objected to “Article 53, which equalizes citizens before the law, regardless of their religion, doctrine, gender, race, color, language, handicap, social status, political or geographic affiliation.” But it passed.

Al-Ahram says


Article 64: Freedom of belief is absolute. Thirty-six voted for, three abstained from voting, eight voted against.
Article 65: Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed and every human being is entitled to express his/her views verbally or in writing, by photography, or any other form of expression. Forty-three voted for, five voted against.
Article 70: Freedom of journalism, printing and publishing in all forms is guaranteed; every Egyptian has the right to own and issue newspapers and to establish audio and visual media. Newspapers are to be issued after notifying the authorities, in accordance with the law. The law regulates procedures for establishing and owning media entities.
Article 71: Censorship, confiscation, suspension, or closure of Egyptian media is prohibited. During times of war or public mobilisation, exceptional censorship is possible.”

Article 70 sounds good but Hiba Morayef of Human Rights Watch pointed out on Twitter, it retains the 2012 language about newspapers being freely established on notification, but says that television will be regulated by statute.

In the end, this is a constitution crafted by and for the relatively secular-minded Egyptian upper classes. (As if working people can each found a newspaper!) It is not anti-religious but it tries to forbid political Islam or the importing of religion into politics. It has many provisions benefiting the upper classes but does little for the workers or the poor. It is ironic that the provisions banning censorship and establishing freedom of speech were passed on a day when dissident Ahmad Maher was arrested for thought crimes (his criticism of the anti-protest law). Indeed, how contradictory a document it is should be obvious from the ironic title of this posting.

A referendum on the constitution will be held in January.

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17 Responses

  1. Farooq Sumar

    Freedom? What Freedom with guns & tanks,imprisonment,torture,teenaged girls in prison4 11yrs & brutal western backed Gen’s ruling??

    • In egypt people like their army and believe its main role it to protect the country from despotic rulers such as Morsy.

  2. LABailey

    BBC World Service Newshour would love to talk to u re Egypt const LIVE 08:30 your time – or we could pre-record. Lucy +442036143800

  3. This whole episode underscores how fraudulent the hysterics were regarding the immediate need to get rid of Morsi.

    Also, a piece of paper like this is only as good as the enforcement. Pieces of paper didn’t stop South American armed forces from dropping chained dissidents from helicopters over the Pacific Ocean.

    It’s not as if the Egyptian Army, which birthed Mubarak, is really an institution that can be trusted.

  4. Is gender equality enshrined by articles 11 and 53? Are there any restrictions on women’s rights in the name of tradition, religion, culture, complementarity, etc.? Is Female Genital Mutilation addressed?

  5. So Sharia is the primary source legislation but religion can’t be mentioned by parties? That’s a nice trick. I guess they’ll just have to pass all those Sharia based laws by mime routine. That’s be more interested to watch than the likely role of parliament as lackeys of the military actually. Because let’s be honest, if you go by the Constitutions the USSR and Mubarak both had free speech. The actions of the junta are unlikely to be affected since pointing out they are breaking the article on torture is a good way to be tortured oneself.

  6. It looks like progress to me. I’m happy for them. We in the U.S. have little room to criticize anyone, as we work out our own problems in government.

  7. The constitutions of many countries sound good on paper but are not, in fact, followed by governments. I am still convinced that the Egyptian people who were too impatient to wait elections to replace Morsi and who made a pact with the Devil (the Army) to illegally overthrow him, will live (at least most of them!) to regret their lack of patience and steadfastness to whom they had given their bay’ah (oath of allegiance) through free elections.
    اللهُ مَعَ الصَّابِرينَ
    Surely, Allah is with those who are patient (steadfast). Qur’an 2:249

  8. Two Egyptian generals approached me just prior to the 2011 revolution in front of the Carlisle Army War College, in Carlisle PA. They were attracted by my huge waving Palestinian flag.
    They seemed curious and pleased to encounter an elderly (81)American woman demonstrating for an unpopular cause without incident.. One. stated apologetically that hated
    Emergency Law., the other man stared in bewilderment.
    The beat goes on.

  9. “What I can’t understand is that the Salafi Nour Party says it is all right with this constitution, even though as far as I can tell it might well require the dissolution of that party.”

    The Nour party’s restraint is peculiar, but they may be banking on the fact that this provision is very difficult to enforce. A similar article failed in the past to stop the FJP, the Nour party, and several others from forming. It was enforce during the 2011 elections. Additionally, the deep states elements in the government are obsessed with enforcing the “non-partisan” independent candidate voting system as much as possible. The larger the number of seats elected on that basis, the harder it is to stop candidates indirectly backed by religious and militarist parties and entities.

    The FJP describes itself as “non-theocratic” and several NSF parties support platforms that are decidedly not in line with typical notions of a “secular” state.

    Ultimately, the real point of articles such as this and the one that banned class based parties in previous Egyptian constitutions is to manipulate the outcome of parliamentary elections. The definition of what constitutes a “religious” party is arbitrary and entirely political in the Egyptian context. The NDP could have been forbidden on from participating in elections if the provision had been enforced objectively in previous eras.

    Given that enormous dissent and looming difficulties the government faces, I am not sure if dissolving the Nour party is viable. Certainly, the elite is hell bent on eliminating as much of the opposition as possible, but opening so many fronts is risky.

    The articles about the voting system which were fortunately voted down already raise concerns about whether the impending parliamentary elections will be fully free and fair. Hopefully the presidential elections will be held before the parliamentary ones so that some chance of a person of a higher caliber than Adly Mansour can take the office as soon as possible.

    I am curious as to how the repressive laws that the interim government is passing can be reconciled with the constitution. Are the protest law and the “anti-terrorism” law going to remain enforced and valid? The “Good intentions (lol)” law? A constitution which proclaims the protections of various freedoms is completely inimical to the despotic behavior of the ruling clique. The government can’t have it both ways. Egypt is going to eventually move toward real freedom or renewed bondage. A house divided against itself cannot permanently endure.

  10. I’ll also note that the Tamarod leaders (who were repudiated by the movement itself) are incredibly hypocritical about the constitution. They claim to hate the 2012 constitution but they essentially aided and abetted the return of some elements of that constitution such as the military trials for civilians. No wonder the movement has rejected these individuals.

    Egypt’s deep state has no intention of allowing the restrictions on military tribunals from hindering its goals. The revolutionaries are going to have to wage a protracted struggle to establish freedom. The current constitution is nowhere near enough.

  11. Souleiman Ghali

    The president of Egypt under this constitution can’t fire or appoint the defense minister without the approval of all the heads of Military branches, such as Air force, navy…..etc about 15 generals. Under this Constitution the defense minister serves 8 years and can’t by charged or tried for any crime while in office. The only way this constitution will pass is by rigging the election which has already started by appointing 32 governor all happened to be former generals to be the watch dog for this election isn’t that so Democratic?

  12. The constitution matters little when a country is perenially governed under emergency laws and decrees.

    The role of the service chiefs in appointing the defense minister reminds me more of the Second Reich than of the Fifth Republic. Wilhemine Germany was undeniably secular, Kuturkampf and all, which I imagine would satisfy the kind of “secular liberals” one finds among the pro-Western Egyptian elites.

  13. The constitution matters little when a country is perenially governed under emergency laws and decrees.

    The role of the service chiefs in appointing the defense minister reminds me more of the Second Reich than of the Fifth Republic. Wilhemine Germany was undeniably secular, Kuturkampf and all, which I imagine would satisfy the kind of “secular liberals” one finds among the pro-Western Egyptian elites.

  14. Carole Keller

    The contradictions and questions you cite notwithstanding, overall do you think this is a good move (at least, as good as it can get), or at least an improvement? And what are the odds it will be approved – and followed – and not itself overturned?

  15. It is unclear how campaigning for presidential and parliamentary offices will be possible. Opposition rallies by foes of the deep state may be rounded up on various pretexts.

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