Egypt’s Constitutional Panel Votes on Draft Constitution

Egypt’s Embattled Constitutional Panel Set to Vote on Draft
Tensions boiled over earlier in the week with mass demonstrations against Mursi’s Nov. 22 edicts shielding his decisions from judicial review and giving the panel immunity from dissolution by the courts. Photographer: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

Egypt’s constitutional committee began voting on a draft charter today, potentially fueling tensions between Islamists and secularists rallying against President Mohamed Mursi.

The 100-member Islamist-dominated committee moved to complete the draft before a Supreme Constitutional Court hearing Dec. 2 in which its legitimacy is being challenged. The panel’s predecessor was disbanded following a court ruling.

The vote comes amid escalating tensions that boiled over this week with mass demonstrations against Mursi’s Nov. 22 edict shielding his decisions from judicial review and giving the committee immunity from dissolution by the courts. His critics derided the move, accusing him of becoming a dictator. Mursi defended the decree, saying it was temporary and aimed at ensuring the goals of last year’s revolution are realized.

“This document lacks legitimacy because it’s by an assembly that has lost its political and moral legitimacy when those representing diversity in the Egyptian society withdrew,” Wahid Abdel Meguid, the committee’s former spokesman who subsequently withdrew from the panel, said by phone. “There’s a premeditated intention for this constitution to be a tool for new tyranny just like the former constitution was a tool for Mubarak’s tyranny.”

Escalating Tensions

New demonstrations are expected tomorrow, and the Muslim Brotherhood is holding a mass rally Dec. 1, days after more than 200,000 packed Cairo’s Tahrir Square in an outpouring of anger at Mursi and his decree.

The unrest has sent Egypt’s borrowing costs surging by the most since February 2011, the month that witnessed Mubarak’s ouster. The country’s one-year borrowing costs soared 125 basis points at an auction today to 14.15 percent. The benchmark stock index lost 12 percent this week, the most since March 2011.

The Brotherhood, which called for a mass rally in Cairo in solidarity with Mursi, planned to move the gathering outside Tahrir, Al Jazeera reported. Holding the protests in the square would be tantamount to a call for “a small-scale civil war,” Mohamed Adel, one of the co-founders of the April 6 youth movement protesting the presidential decree, said in an e-mailed statement.

The vote, announced yesterday even after Mursi extended its mandate for another two months, was held after about a quarter of its members announced their withdrawal. Eleven representatives were replaced and 85 were in attendance at the start of voting, Hossam el-Gheriani, the head of the committee, said in a live television broadcast.

Islamic Law

One the charter’s most divisive articles dealing with the issue of Islamic law was left unchanged from the previous constitution, reading that “principles of Shariah” were the main source of legislation. A new clause was added stating that Al-Azhar, the Sunni-Muslim world’s pre-eminent religious institution, would be consulted on Shariah-related matters.

The new draft doesn’t specify the protection of women’s rights, while another article says the state would protect “the nature” of the Egyptian family and women’s ability to balance between their familial responsibilities and their outside work.

“Egypt’s constitution now no longer includes an obligation not to discriminate against women = ZERO protection for women’s rights,” Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch Egypt director, wrote on her Twitter account.

The new charter, if approved, would be sent to Mursi. The president then has to put it to a national referendum.

Legal Vacuum

Pushing ahead with the process “is a way to try to end the constitutional and legal vacuum in the country that’s been going on for almost two years,” Yasser El-Shimy, Middle East analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said by phone from Cairo. “But we would have liked to see a more consensual approach.”

The draft charter also approves the temporary transfer of legislative authority to the upper house of parliament, which currently only has a consultative role, until a new lower house is elected, MENA said. Under an earlier edict, Mursi took legislative authority after the lower house was dissolved.

The draft includes articles allowing for the military trials of civilians for crimes related to the armed forces, and the establishment of a National Defense Council responsible for the armed forces’ budget and laws related to the military.

The charter will also bar former senior officials in Mubarak’s ruling party from holding office for a decade, the state-run Ahram Gate website reported. A similar law was struck down by the constitutional court earlier this year.

The draft enables the army to be a “state within a state,” Ashraf el-Sherif, adjunct lecturer in political science at the American University in Cairo, said by phone. “This is a military, Brotherhood and Salafi constitution.”

“These are the groups that wrote it,” he said. “This is not the constitution of Egypt.”

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