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The Egyptian military’s decision to form a committee to amend specific articles of the 1971 constitution has raised concerns about both the committee's mandate and its composition.
The eight-member committee held its first meeting on Tuesday to discuss possible ways of amending six articles of the national charter. It is expected to draft the constitutional amendments by 25 February, paving the way for more democratic reforms long demanded by the opposition.
In a move aimed at expediting procedures for the transfer of authority, Egypt's Supreme Armed Forces Council declared that a nationwide referendum on the amendments could be held as early as April.
The current Egyptian constitution was written during Anwar Sadat's presidency, and has been amended three times since then--in 1980, in 2005 and in 2007. This constitution served to consolidate power in the hands of the presidency at the expense of all other branches of government.
Egypt’s current military rulers have proposed the amendment of constitutional articles 76, 77, 88, 93, 179 and 189. The Supreme Armed Forces Council also said that other constitutional articles could be changed in order to allow fair and democratic presidential and parliamentary elections.
Article 76 pertains to candidacy requirements for presidential elections; Article 77 stipulates the number of terms allowed for the president to stay in office; Article 88 pertains to electoral oversight; Article 93 pertains to parliament’s authority to determine the validity of its membership; Article 179 allows the state to curtail certain freedoms guaranteed by other articles under the pretext of combating terrorism; and Article 189 states the conditions required for amending the constitution.
On Sunday, the military council dissolved both chambers of parliament, suspended the constitution, and promised free parliamentary and presidential elections within six months.
In light of the blatant electoral fraud that has been a central feature of recent national polls, pro-democracy leaders also want guarantees for the independent oversight of all future elections.
Doubts over procedures
Amending only six articles of the constitution, however, is not enough for the leaders of the popular uprising that forced former president Hosni Mubarak to step down on 11 February after nearly 30 years in power.
The Coalition of Young Revolutionaries, a loose group of activists involved in planning the anti-Mubarak protests, said on Monday that it had asked to draft a new constitution that would establish a parliamentary republic, clearly define the president’s authority, and guarantee the separation of power between the government’s three branches.
Some political experts fear that limiting the constitutional amendments to six articles only could leave the structure of Egypt's authoritative regime intact.
“I think that the military council is confused; that they don’t have a comprehensive plan to administer the transitional period,” said Hassan Nafaa, professor of political science at Cairo University. “The army wants to finish the transitional period by any means. It suspended the constitution, but didn’t abolish it--and now they only want to change six articles.”
The newly-appointed committee includes eight members, three of whom are current judges. The rest are academics specialized in constitutional and public law, in addition to one former MP for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The committee is chaired by Tareq al-Bishry, a respected former vice-president of Egypt's Council of Administrative Courts.
“Al-Bishry is the best option for this committee. He has deep philosophical and legal insight and is capable of administering discussions about drafting the proposed articles,” said Yehia al-Gamal, professor of law at Cairo University.
The formation of the committee itself--and the attempts to accelerate procedures to finish the transitional period--has led some observers to worry about Egypt’s future political system.
“What we need now is a new constitution. The army wants to leave all the discussions about reshaping the political system to the prospective elected parliament and president,” said Nafaa. “As a result, we will have political forces that don’t represent the massive changes that have been taking place. We need some time in order to see the outcome of the revolution."
Egypt’s Coptic Christians, meanwhile, are in an uproar over the composition of the committee, of which a lawyer affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood is a member. Coptic sources also say that they are displeased with al-Bishry’s appointment as committee chairman.
Sobhi Saleh is an influential brotherhood member and former parliamentarian representing a district of Alexandria from 2005 to 2010. In its first ever party platform, the brotherhood angered critics when it said that Copts (and women) could not be allowed to serve as president of the republic.
Former judge and Islamic historian al-Bishry, meanwhile, is considered by many secularists as advocating Islamic thought regarding culture and citizenship. “It’s a disaster to have a committee headed by al-Bishry and with a brotherhood lawyer as a member,” said Coptic Church lawyer Naguib Gebraeel.
The Coptic minority, which accounts for nearly ten percent of Egypt’s 80 million population, constitutes the Middle East’s largest Christian community. They complain of systematic discrimination by the state, especially in high government posts.
On Tuesday, the Coptic Church hailed the 25 January revolution, offering condolences to the families of the more than 300 martyrs who lost their lives during the 18-day-long protests. In a statement, the Coptic Church voiced its belief that Egypt was a "secular and democratic" state.
“The entire church is deeply angry over the committee, and some human rights activists will march to the military council to express their refusal to include the brotherhood in the committee,” said Gebraeel.
Judge Maher Samy Youssef, of Egypt’s Constitutional Court, is the only Coptic member of the panel.
Gebraeel, however, dismissed Youssef’s appointment, saying that the latter had never been known for advocating the freedom of belief.
“The church cannot guarantee that this committee in its current form can protect religious freedoms,” he said.