x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Egypt warms to the draft constitution

The positive reception for Egypt's draft constitution comes amidst tumultuous times since the uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak and bodes well for the future.

After nearly three years in which Egyptians have gone from the euphoria of overthrowing a dictator to the multiple disappointments that eventually led to the removal of Mohammed Morsi from the office of the president, they could be forgiven for having the lowest of expectations for the latest version of the constitution. Yet, the draft charter has been warmly greeted by many Egyptians.

Conducted against a backdrop of army primacy, with suggestions that the military would be granted greater autonomy when a new government convenes after fresh elections, and with the process boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood – one of the players in Egyptian society, even if its actions in power betrayed the faith of many supporters – the draft constitution had seemed destined to be deeply flawed.

But despite the pessimism, the document that has emerged has been received surprisingly warmly, albeit with questions about some elements. That, however, is to be expected in something so fundamental to the life of everyone under which it is sovereign.

The interim government will put the draft to a popular vote, a significant milepost in the road map of returning Egypt to democratic rule.

The key themes of the draft have attracted mostly positive responses, and especially the emphasis that it is intended “to build a democratic, modern country with a civilian government”.

The draft also describes the freedom of belief as being “absolute”, improving on the previous constitution in which it had been “preserved”. Political activity based on religion, however, is prohibited in what is clearly a rebuff to the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Freedom and Justice party and the Salafist Al Nour party. In this way the charter hopes to avoid the divisiveness of sectarian politics.

On the issue of the degree to which the laws of Egypt ought to be based on Sharia – a perennial sticking point between Islamist and liberal advocates – the decision referred to the Supreme Constitutional Court’s limited definition of Sharia principles. (This earned the displeasure of an independent member of the constitutional panel who had previously been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.)

A few elements of the new constitution have raised eyebrows, particularly with regard to greater autonomy for the military within a civilian government, including that it be able to choose its own chief, who will serve as defence minister. Civilians who attack members of the military will also be subject to military tribunals – where decisions cannot be appealed – instead of civilian courts.

The issue now in Egypt is the voters’ verdict on the new constitution, and the percentage of approval it garners. The turnout will inevitably be compared to the 64 per cent approval the 2012 version received, albeit with only one in three of eligible voters taking part.

But behind all the debate over this latest version of the charter and the winners and losers therein, the overall issue was put in focus by the head of the constitutional panel, Egyptian statesman Amr Moussa. He called this process “the path of rescue” from the events of the past year to a future of stability and security, in turn allowing for the nation’s economic recovery so that average Egyptians can provide for their families.

That, above all else, is exactly what Egyptians crave and deserve.