Report: No Great Change in Egypt Chapter

TEHRAN (Tasnim) – Experts say the draft Egyptian constitution gives privileged status to institutions that have repeatedly thwarted change during Egypt’s years of revolutionary turmoil, including the police.

Report: No Great Change in Egypt Chapter

On paper, a draft Egyptian Constitution — which was made publicly available in its entirety for the first time over the weekend — appears to afford citizens important new rights, including by criminalizing torture and human trafficking and requiring that the state protect women from violence, New York Times reported.

But experts say the draft text also gives privileged status to institutions that have repeatedly thwarted change during Egypt’s years of revolutionary turmoil, including the police, seen as the main instigator of abuses. And, in recent days, discussion about the Constitution has been overwhelmed by reports of growing unrest that have highlighted the gap between official rhetoric about human rights and the state’s longstanding repressive tactics.

On Saturday and Sunday, the committee that helped draft the charter held a televised voting session and approved its 247 articles. The charter is intended to replace a Constitution that was passed by a public vote last year during the tenure of former President Mohamed Mursi, who was ousted by the military in July. Officials in the new military-backed government have said that the draft will be put to a referendum this month, in what they view as a critical milestone in a proposed road map to democracy and a crucial vote of confidence in the legitimacy of the interim rulers.

But an unexpected change to an article in the draft charter cast uncertainty over planned parliamentary elections and raised the possibility of delays in the military’s road map. Committee members on Sunday left open the question of whether presidential or parliamentary elections would be held first after the ratification of the constitution — a move that some speculated was intended to clear the way for the powerful defense minister, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, to become president.

Television news programs on Sunday switched between staid coverage of the constitutional committee’s voting and scenes of unrest in Tahrir Square in Cairo, where hundreds of students gathered before they were dispersed by a storm of tear gas — providing a contrast between the idealistic language in the charter and a more bitter reality. Despite notable improvements over earlier constitutions, analysts said the draft was unlikely to lead to the kind of fundamental change that Egypt sorely needed.

The current draft, like others before it, was based on Egypt’s 1971 Constitution, which the writers have repeatedly returned to “like it’s a bible,” said Zaid al-Ali, a Cairo-based constitutional expert with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. “It’s remarkable that, in a revolutionary environment, you don’t have a revolutionary constitution,” he said.

Recently, the voices clamoring for change have grown louder. The government has faced anger for what its critics say is an authoritarian turn, including by passing a repressive protest law that has led to a renewed crackdown on demonstrations by students and non-Islamist activists. On Sunday, officials said they had extended the detention of Alaa Abd El Fattah, a well-known activist who is being charged with violating the protest law.

The detentions of Mr. Abd El Fattah and other prominent leftists and liberals have begun to widen opposition to the interim government beyond Mr. Mursi’s Islamist supporters, who have borne the brunt of the state’s repression. The security services have killed more than 1,000 Islamist protesters since July. Thousands of others have been detained, including leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr. Mursi’s Islamist movement, but also young people who have received harsh prison sentences for protesting against the military.

In some respects, the charter being debated now is a further attempt to wipe away the vestiges of Islamist rule. The Constitution passed under Mr. Mursi left a bitter legacy, with critics arguing that its Islamist drafters rushed it to approval without consensus, amplified the role of Islamic law and restricted freedoms. It was passed by a majority of voters, but the low turnout — 33 percent — left it open to further criticism.

The committee writing the new Constitution included a handful of Islamists, making it vulnerable to similar charges of exclusion. And while the current draft removes many of the religious references that secular-leaning figures objected to — including the mention of “public morals” — it did not offer significant new protections for religious minorities or fundamentally alter the relationship of religion and the state, analysts said.

For instance, while the new draft refers to freedom of belief as “absolute,” rather than “protected,” as the old draft had, both charters leave freedom to practice religion subject to the state’s laws, which have traditionally offered scant protection against religious discrimination.
The new charter also bans political parties based on religion, potentially outlawing Islamist parties.

Experts noted several significant improvements over the last Constitution, including detailed provisions on children’s rights and a commitment to abide by international human rights treaties signed by Egypt. The charter enshrines a defendant’s right to silence and creates a commission to fight discrimination.

In the change to one of the articles on Sunday, the committee members voted down a provision that would have set parliamentary elections for between 30 and 90 days after the ratification of a constitution — as mandated by the road map. Instead, they left the decision about whether parliamentary or presidential elections would be held first in the hands of the military-backed interim president, Adli Mansour.

Analysts speculated that the switch could be intended to give non-Islamist parties more time to organize themselves ahead of parliamentary elections, while giving a sitting president more control over the makeup of Parliament. One of the most frequently mentioned candidates for president is Egypt’s de facto leader, General Sisi.

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