In an unexpected concession to liberal and secular activists, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on Tuesday announced plans to form a committee to establish core constitutional principles before parliamentary elections.
Buried in a televised address from SCAF spokesperson General Mohsen al-Fangary that enraged protesters with its threatening tone, the announcement marks the military's first step to address the increasingly divisive battle over when and how a constitution will be drafted.
Osama al-Ghazaly Harb, founder of the Democratic Front Party, said that SCAF Vice President Samy Annan and three high-ranking military officers – SCAF legal adviser Major General Mamdouh Shahin, Major General Mohamed al-Assar and Major General Ismail Etman – met with him and representatives from Tagammu Party, Egyptian Liberals and the Egyptian Democratic Party, among others, on 6 July.
During the meeting, “[Annan] asked me to begin deliberations about new amendments for the constitution,” Harb said. He said he was tasked with setting up a committee to discuss the growing number of draft proposals for constitutional principles.
The panel is likely to produce a written list of constitutional amendments that could be included in an SCAF declaration, according to Mohamed Nour Farahat, a legal history and philosophy professor at Zagazig University who is expected to sit on the committee.
These amendments, focused on human rights guarantees and based on topics with broad consensus among Egypt’s multiplying factions, would act as “supra-principles” which could not be abrogated when a final constitution is created after parliamentary elections, Harb said.
Tahany al-Gabaly, a Supreme Constitutional Court justice, said the military’s announcement was a victory for those fighting for a civil country. She had not yet been asked to join the committee, but Harb mentioned her name as a likely member.
Speaking on Monday before the military’s official announcement, Harb said the group would discuss the proposals in order to come up with a consensus on basic constitutional protections of human rights, and felt confident an agreement could be reached with the Muslim Brotherhood.
“They now accept they cannot refuse these principles,” he said.
But a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood was quick to criticize the move yesterday.
“The only party responsible for deciding who are the members of the assembly that will write the constitution is the parliament,” Mahmoud Ghozlan told the Associated Press.
One sticking point could be Article 2 of the current constitution, which says that Islam is the primary source of law.
“No one thinks of touching this law,” Harb said, when asked about hostility from Islamist and Salafi groups.
The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and 27 Egyptian human rights organizations on Saturday also proposed a set of constitutional guidelines. Bahey Eddin Hassan, general director of the institute, said the document did not address Article 2 specifically, but urged that the constitution use international human rights norms as the “prime reference” for legislation.
When pressed on whether this contradicts Article 2, he said, "Of course it contradicts the current phrasing of Article 2. But the growing trend among Egyptians is to amend the constitution to allow non-Muslims to follow their religious teachings.” He said there is room for interpreting Article 2 broadly, which would make it compatible with human rights practices.
Protesters, focused on the slow pace of military trials and security reform, took little notice of the announcement yesterday.
“It’s a good compromise, but the timing will not help the cause,” said Hussein Magdy, an April 6 Youth Movement member from Beni Suef. “There is friction between the SCAF and protesters” right now, and the trials are more important to people.
The legitimacy of the committee’s work will depend on who is involved, according to Hassan, who said he was not satisfied with the constitutional committee formed to draft the amendments put to a referendum in March because it was packed with Islamists.
“We will wait and see who will be on this panel. This will be the key,” he said.
Harb thinks it is likely the panel will not release a final draft until September. “These things are not done quickly,” and work is likely to slow to a crawl during Ramadan, he said, anticipating that elections would be delayed until December or January.
As protesters intensify their clashes with the military council over who will run the country, the proposed committee’s work remains in doubt.
“I would be stupid if I would say I was optimistic,” said Hassan. “This does not mean I am pessimistic. The question is open.”