Tuesday, December 11, 2012

(opinion) Egypt unrest: what’s in a constitution?

There are many things you can say about constitutions but one thing you can’t say is that they do not matter. While previous Egyptian governments have been less than faithful to the 1971 constitution, the referendum on the much disputed draft constitution will be a major event in the country’s history as the country reconfigures its social contract. In theory, the drafting of the Egypt’s politico-legal architecture should be rational process where all concerns are heard and considered in the final document; however we live in a world of fact and power struggles.

The draft constitution, largely written by the Muslim brotherhood, as you might expect, favour Islamic traditions and laws, secularist and liberals however see the draft constitution as an affront to the principles they fought for in getting rid of Hosni Mubarak and have subsequently boycotted talks with the brotherhood[1].  

However the concerns of secularists and liberals about the draft constitution soon to be subject to referendum as the document, for the most part, merely adds changes that further mainly Islamic interests while weakening traditional liberal rights free speech as while the new constitution mildly deviates from the 1971 constitution position stipulating that “the state shall guarantee the freedom of belief and the freedom of practice of religious rites”, the new constitution  while enshrining free speech in article 45 prohibits the “insulting (of) prophets and messengers” in article 44[2].

The real demarcations between the two constitutions are to be found over the rights of women. Article 11 of the 1971 constitution, actually recognizes the rights of women as the document ensures:

"The state shall guarantee the proper balance between the duties of women towards the family and their work in society, considering their equal status with men in the fields of political, social, cultural and economic life without violation of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence"[3].
While the draft constitution recognizes the rights of Egyptians, it falls short of a “explicit guarantee of women’s rights”[4]. To end on a good note, the draft constitution limits the ‘presidential mandate’ to four years from the 1971 constitution’s six while ensuring that presidents can only serve two terms instead of the “unlimited number of terms” in the 1971 constitution[5].

In sum, the power struggles will continue whether the draft constitution is ratified or not with pro-brotherhood forces calling for greater enshrinement of Islam in the constitution while liberals will demand more rights. In the end, as suspected, both sides will probably be disappointed with the results.  

[1] BBC News, 2012, Comparison of Egypt’s suspended and draft constitutions, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20555478
[2] Ibid, quoted by BBC News
[3] Ibid, quoted by BBC News
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid, quoted by BBC News

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