Egyptian draft constitution explained

The new inclusive draft constitution is complete and is to be voted on in a two-day national referendum starting on January 14.  The document is a far cry from the Islamist dominated 2012 constitution written during Dr. Morsi’s presidential tenure, as well as the old 1971 constitution.  

The basic core principles are all there. Gender equality and freedom of religious belief and practice are guaranteed.  The draft constitution reinforces press freedoms and commits Egypt to its obligations under international rights treaties. It holds that no media organization can be shut down because of what it writes or broadcasts, nor can any journalist be imprisoned for what he or she writes, unless it is incitement to violence or discrimination, or is libellous. The section allowing nationalization by the state (albeit with conditions) that was in Morsi’s constitution has been removed. Private ownership has become an inviolate right. Freedom of assembly and demonstration also is declared.

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The new draft constitution was drafted by a committee of 50. Almost every faction of society was painstakingly included, sometimes for the first time ever, such as Nubians, the Sinai Bedouins and the handicapped. Mainstream Islam was represented by the Azhar, while the Church sat in for the Copts. The Islamist Nour Party, as well as a contingent of women, labor unions, liberals, leftists and members of the political establishment were present.

As has become usual though, since June 30, solely the Muslim Brotherhood was missing from the process and that only because they turned down the invitation to join. In a compelling message, in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities but not its beliefs were repudiated,  Dr. Kamal Helbawi was appointed deputy head of the committee of 50. Dr. Helbawi is a former member of the organization who has renounced the group but remains committed to its principles.

In the few days after it was made public, the contents of the new charter have been dissected, and every word and intention analyzed.

The process was largely faulted for not including the Muslim Brotherhood, but to concentrate solely on their absence in the process and to scrutinize this document with no regard to the political context in which it was written, misses the point.

The very imperfections in the draft constitution reflect the desire to accommodate as many groups of society as possible, attempting in the process to undo the wrongs and mistakes of the past. It can certainly be faulted for being sometimes long winded and in parts reading like a catalogue of wishful thinking, in particular with regard to the delivery of social services. Nevertheless the charter has succeeded in setting the tone and direction of the future. Unlike Mubarak’s Egypt, the poor will not be forgotten and their right to a social net has been established. The allocations to social services are ambitious given budget constraints, but at least the rights have been enshrined.

The military retained its independence over its budget and choice of the minister of defence for only two presidential terms. Following a year of Morsi’s rule in which all but his Muslim Brotherhood cronies were excluded, a strong role for the military is seen as necessary to prevent the resurgence of a faction that would rule solely to the exclusion of all others.  Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood’s almost daily and sometimes violent demonstrations during the weeks of writing the draft constitution, reinforced the perception of the need for a strong arbiter.

Significantly, the exercise alone of drafting and vetting of this document, written as it was by such a widely religious and politically disparate group speaks volumes for the change taking place in Egyptian society today. And in the end, this charter should be read more as a social contract.

Sooner or later, amendments are bound to be made to it, as has been the case in many countries as societies evolve. It is a work in progress, one which is also viewed as a necessary rite of passage to normalcy and the return of stability. Following the passing of the draft constitution, widely expected in the referendum, elections are slated to take place and the post-June 30 road map will have been completed, paving the way to a return of stability and economic life. And it is for these reasons that Egyptians will likely overwhelmingly approve it.

Some may deplore the pace and direction of Egyptian politics and the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the political spectrum even though other Islamist parties are very present. That is their prerogative.  In the end however, Egyptians are determined to chart their own course as they see fit. The rest of the world should respect that path.

Khayat is founder and chairman of an asset management company based in Egypt. She is also head of the economic committee of the Free Egyptians Party, a political party founded after the 2011 revolution.