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December 21, 2012

Analysts Note Serious Problems in Egyptian Constitution

by Al Pessin

Egyptians are expected to approve their new constitution in a final round of voting on Saturday.  Liberal opponents say the document opens the door to abuse of democratic freedoms by whoever is in power -- currently the Islamists.   The Islamists, who controlled the drafting process, dismiss such concerns, saying the document will bring stability and progress after two years of political turmoil. 

Egyptians waited patiently to vote on their new constitution. But the lengthy document is fraught with contradictions.

It guarantees many freedoms.  But it also limits them.

Among the examples, it protects freedom of speech, and expression, but it also bans insulting anyone.

It guarantees freedom of the press, but says the media should operate “in accordance with the basic principles of the state and society.”

It provides for the right to protest, but says civilians can be tried in military courts if they “harm” the military -- one of many vague references in the document.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but only for monotheistic religions, and it makes Islam the state religion and a Sunni interpretation of Muslim Law the “principal source” for all legislation.

According to a competing video from liberal opposition groups, the document opens the door to “poverty, slavery and repression,” and it's a "stew that was cooked too fast and won't please enough of the people."

There is no shortage of partisan rhetoric. But what do independent experts say?

Constitutional law expert Tom Ginsburg, of the University of Chicago Law School, said  much of the draft looks fine, but a few provisions are reason for concern.

“The key question of course when it comes to these provisions in any Muslim country is not what's written on paper but how they're interpreted. And that, I think is where real fear comes into play,” Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg says that interpretation will be done by more and more Islamist judges if the Islamists control the future government, as expected. And he is particularly concerned about provisions in the constitution that give the military significant power.

The constitution does set up a democratic system, with frequent elections and some division of powers between the president, the parliament and the courts.

But Mina Khalil of the American University of Cairo is concerned that too much is left to a simple majority in parliament or among the people, creating the possibility of abuse by whichever political viewpoint is in power.

“Legally speaking you could live with it, but politically speaking I don't think you can.  If it's supposed to place a check on how the majority rules, this document does not do that,” Khalil

Khalil believes Egypt is heading for a difficult period but says a newly awakened political spirit will serve the country well in the long term.

“So I'm not entirely giving up yet. I strongly believe that the future of the country really will depend on how active people become in its politics,” Khalil said..

There has been plenty of activism in Egypt during the past two years, most of it on the streets. Parliamentary elections expected in February will again test how well liberals and Islamists can channel that energy into politics, and will determine who gets the first chance to interpret the new constitution.