x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Egypt’s constitution panel keeps military trials for civilians

Constitution drafting panel votes to keep military trials for civilians in certain cases, despite opposition from some secular activists and rights groups concerned over the army's wide-ranging powers.

Student protesters and supporters of ousted Islamic President Mohammed Morsi gather outside the main gate of Cairo University on December 1. Mohammed Asad / AP
Student protesters and supporters of ousted Islamic President Mohammed Morsi gather outside the main gate of Cairo University on December 1. Mohammed Asad / AP

CAIRO // Egypt’s constitution-drafting panel voted yesterday to retain military trials for civilians in certain cases despite opposition from some secular activists and rights groups concerned over the army’s wide-ranging powers.

The thorny issue of the military’s longstanding privileges was at the heart of voting on the constitution yesterday after the 50-member panel approved 138 of the 247 articles of the draft charter the day before.

The panel approved Article 204, which says that “no civilian can be tried by military judges, except for crimes of direct attacks on armed forces, military installations and military personnel.”

The panel also approved Article 234, which stipulates that the defence minister be appointed in agreement with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, although panel spokesman Mohammed Salmawy said this clause would only apply during the next two presidential terms.

The new constitution would also keep the military’s budget beyond civilian scrutiny.

The 50-member committee, dominated by secularists, approved 138 of 247 articles on Saturday during sessions aired live on state television.

Once approved, the constitution will be submitted to a popular referendum early next year, billed as the first stage in a “democratic transition” promised by the military-installed authorities following the ouster of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in July.

Supporters say the proposed new constitution entrenches civil liberties; detractors say it tightens the military’s grip on Egyptian politics.

The articles approved so far guarantee “absolute” freedom of belief, ban torture, and protect civil liberties, while outlawing the formation of parties based on religion.

Authorities extended the detention of prominent secular activist Alaa Abdel Fattah by 15 days after he was arrested for holding an unauthorised demonstration against the provision in the draft charter allowing military trials of civilians.

His detention is expected to further anger secular activists who are furious over the provisions in the draft charter concerning the military. Another 24 activists also saw their detention extended by 15 days yesterday.

Secular activists had demonstrated against the provision, fearing it could be applied to protesters, journalists and dissidents.

Such fears deepened after Abdel Fattah’s extended detention, with authorities accusing him of breaking a law on demonstrations, inciting protesters to riot and block roads, and beating a police officer.

Another top activist, Ahmed Maher, was freed yesterday after he turned himself in at a Cairo court on Saturday following an order for his arrest.

A law passed earlier this month, which requires permits for all public gatherings, has angered secular and human rights groups, especially since the military justified its removal of Morsi by saying it was responding to mass protests.

Political analyst Hassan Nafea said secular Egyptians would be angry over the constitutional provisions concerning the army.

“That will trigger debates among the secular camp at a time when the new protest law has already angered them,” said the professor of political science at Cairo University.

Mr Nafea said the referendum -- which would be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections in mid-2014 – will be the real test of the charter.

“I am not sure the constitution would be passed with a big majority by the Egyptian people ... when the nation is polarised. People will not vote on the basis of whether the constitution is good or bad, but ... on the basis of which camp you belong to,” he said.

The interim authorities suspended the constitution written under Mr Morsi after his removal on July 3. That charter had been drafted by a 100-member panel dominated by his Islamist allies.

The current panel includes representatives from civil society, political parties, institutions including the army and police, and the Coptic church.

It has just two Islamists, neither of whom is from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which won a series of polls after Mubarak’s ouster.

More than 2,000 pro-Morsi students meanwhile poured out of university campuses and managed to reach Cairo’s Tahrir Square yesterday, where they held the biggest Islamist demonstration since Mr Morsi’s ouster.

Police later moved in to disperse the protesters with tear gas.

* Agence France-Presse and Bloomberg