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Concern Mounts Over Egypt's Proposed Constitution

  • Elizabeth Arrott

An anti-Morsi protester smokes a cigarette and and gestures in front of members of the Republican Guard blocking a road to the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, December 6, 2012.

An anti-Morsi protester smokes a cigarette and and gestures in front of members of the Republican Guard blocking a road to the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, December 6, 2012.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi gave the writers of Egypt's new constitution an extra three months to complete their task. But with a possible court challenge to their legitimacy looming, the mainly Islamist drafters pushed through the document in an extraordinary all-night session late last month.

With liberal and secular lawmakers boycotting the process, critics called the document a farce and took to the streets in protest.

They fear that in a referendum set for Saturday, a majority in this devoutly Muslim nation might say "Yes."

Mustafa el Labbad is the director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies. He argues a constitution should not be about straight numbers.

“A constitution could be drafted and issued and agreed upon - a compromise from all factions and all parties. You cannot think you have the majority, slight majority, so you can do what you want,” he said.

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Despite the outcry from opponents, some observers believe the draft is not a blueprint for the imposition of strict sharia law.

"It has some positive elements," said political sociologist Said Sadek of the American University in Cairo. "It has negative elements. It has also omissions. It has also minefields.”

It is unclear which "principles of Sharia," as indicated in the draft, would guide legislation. Sadek contrasts, as an example, two prominent scholars, one who would grant equality to women, another who would have them stay at home.

“So this is Sharia. And this is Sharia. Which one do you want to apply?" he asked. " Progressive Sharia, or reactionary Sharia?"

While some drafters say they seek a modern, moderate Islamic state, Human Rights Watch Egypt Director Heba Morayef says intentions are irrelevant. She objects to provisions that have the government overseeing morality and family life.

“The text allows that kind of discretion to the government to interfere and to limit rights, to limit very basic rights on the basis of these broad concepts of morality of the 'true nature of the Egyptian family.' That fundamentally weakens any rights protection in the constitution," she said.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated the drafting assembly, dismisses critics, arguing the draft realizes "dreams of building a democratic regime."

Drafters are also campaigning to persuade Egyptians their rights - including freedom of speech - will be protected. Curiously, in an animated video they released, many of the cartoon figures have no mouths.

With Egypt so polarized, Sadek advocates reviving the old constitution temporarily, with some of the amendments passed last year, then reaching consensus over time when the atmosphere becomes calmer.

“America took 10 years, so many countries, because they know that the constitution can lead to a big disaster and division in the country, postpone it," he said.

But with the referendum set for Saturday, the chance of achieving calm or consensus appears slim.

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