Supra-constitutional debate heats up again

With less than a month left to elect Egypt’s first post-Hosni Mubarak parliament, the controversy over the promulgation of a binding charter with basic constitutional principles is once again reigniting political divides.

On one hand, Islamists voice vehement opposition to a charter that they believe is an attempt to weaken their influence, while secularists endorse the move but fear it could lead to further empowerment of Egypt’s generals.

On Wednesday, the Muslim Brotherhood-led Democratic Alliance convened and voted to take to the streets if the charter is passed. Along with 10 other mostly Islamist parties, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party demanded that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces drop the proposal and sack Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmy, who has been campaigning for the charter.

Islamists reiterated their argument that such a charter would infringe on the authority of the 100-member constituent assembly that the parliament is supposed to elect and entrust with drafting the new constitution. To support their argument, they refer to the results of the March referendum, when nearly 80 percent votes favored this scenario.

“We affirm that there is no way the people’s free will can be circumvented,” read the statement issued by the alliance after Wednesday’s meeting.

The signatories also threatened to call for a million-man march on 18 November if the military holds onto the charter and ignores the demand echoed by several presidential candidates to hold the presidential poll and hand power over to civilians by 12 April.

“[The draft charter] is categorically rejected,” said Mohamed Selim al-Awa, a potential moderate Islamist candidate for president, who was present at the meeting. “The document is an attempt to impose guardianship on the parliament’s two chambers which are set to elect the constituent assembly.”

Another two presidential hopefuls, including Ayman Nour and Abdullah al-Ashal were also present.

Wednesday’s meeting came in reaction to talks held yesterday by Selmy with leaders of several political groups and public figures to discuss the 22-clause document with a set of principles that will determine the identity of the state and lay out fundamental principles and liberties. Selmy had reportedly said that this document will be included in a binding constitutional declaration by the SCAF.

The call to issue a set of binding constitutional principles was first made by secular political forces shortly after the results of the March referendum showed that the process of drafting the new constitution might fall into the hands of the new parliament. Fearing an Islamist parliamentary majority, many secularists called for the promulgation of a document with a set of “supra-constitutional” principles that the constitution’s architects should have to abide by. Such a charter should impose clear restrictions to prevent Islamists from turning Egypt into a “religious” state.

To preempt such moves, tens of thousands of Islamists rallied in Tahrir Square on 29 July in an unprecedented show of force, raising slogans in support of an Islamic state. The scene of Tahrir Square packed with bearded men mostly in white robes and women wearing black niqabs sent shock waves through large segments of society. To reassure these people, Selmy announced in August that the military might issue a new constitutional declaration with a set of basic principles that ensure the establishment of a civil democratic state.

Selmy’s document discussed yesterday states that Egypt is a democratic civil state, Islam is its official religion and Islamic Sharia is the primary source of legislation. It goes on to give the right to non-Muslims to follow their own creeds in personal status and religious matters.

Islamists have been constantly opposed to the use of the term “civil” insisting that it can pave the way for the establishment of a secular political system. They have also voiced vehement resistance to the reference to “non-Muslim” creeds insisting that the word bears a recognition of other non-monotheistic religious groups that Islam does not recognize.

In the meantime, the document includes another controversial clause that bothers many non-Islamist forces. This clause gives the SCAF the exclusive right to oversee the affairs of the military and to discuss the budget of the armed forces. Several party leaders, who attended the talks, voiced reservation over this clause and had reportedly demanded that it be amended so that the parliament could have the right to oversee the budget of the armed forces.

Potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei dismissed the draft charter as “a distorted” document for the powers it gives to the military.

“The armed forces are not above the state and will never be. There is a difference between a democratic civil state that guarantees fundamental human rights and military custodianship,” ElBaradei wrote on his Twitter account.

He did not oppose the principle of putting forward a charter with constitutional guidelines but insisted it should be authored by “an impartial commission.”

The empowerment of the military was manifested in another document that Selmy discussed with political parties at yesterday’s meeting. That document sets regulations for the composition and work of the constituent assembly that will draft the constitution. The military-sponsored proposal states that only 20 out of the assembly’s 100 members could belong to parties represented in the new parliament, meaning the remaining 80 should be elected from outside the parliament. The same document gives the military the right to refer the new constitution to Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court if it violates values of freedom or any of the military-issued constitutional declarations. If the constituent assembly fails to draft the new constitution within six months, the military has the right to form a new assembly, the proposal says.

For some liberals, allowing the military to retain power would be less harmful that leaving Islamists unchecked. To Mohamed Hamed, a leader of the Free Egyptians Party, a military dictatorship is more acceptable that a “Taliban-style” rule.

“Would you compare the regression to dark ages to a normal form of human despotism?” he asked rhetorically.

“We can rebel against human despotism and take to the streets. [Plus], but I don’t think the military would dare do injustice to the people after what it saw in Tahrir Square,” he said.

To resolve this standoff between Islamists opposing the charter and most liberals who endorse it, the military should put the matter to a public referendum, suggested Hamed.

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