Egyptian Islamists Approve Draft Constitution Despite Objections

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CAIRO -- Racing against the threat of dissolution by judges appointed by ousted President Hosni Mubarak, and ignoring howls of protest from secular opponents, the Islamists drafting Egypt's new constitution voted Friday to approve a charter that human rights groups and international experts said was full of holes and ambiguities.

The result would fulfill some of the central demands of the revolution: the end of Egypt's all-powerful presidency, a stronger parliament and provisions against torture or detention without trial. But it would also give Egypt's generals much of the power and privilege they had during the Mubarak era and would reject the demands of ultraconservative Salafis to impose puritanical moral codes.

Yet the contents of the document were perhaps less contentious than the context in which it was being adopted. Adding to the divisive atmosphere in Egypt, its passage was expected after almost all the delegates from secular parties and Coptic Christians walked out and protesters took to the streets.

Dismissing the discord, President Mohamed Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said in a televised interview on Thursday that he expected to call for an almost immediate referendum on the draft constitution to help bring Egypt's chaotic political transition to a close -- "a difficult birth from the womb of an ancient nation."

"We are going to get out of this short bottleneck hugging each other," he added.

But Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and former United Nations diplomat, compared the proposed constitution to the charters that Egypt's former authoritarian rulers passed in rigged plebiscites. "It will not survive," he said.

The Coptic Church, whose members are believed to make up about 10 percent of Egyptians, directed its representatives on the assembly to boycott the vote. One representative said the constitution represented only the Islamists who had drafted it. "Not the constitution of Egypt," the church negotiator, Kamel Saleh, told the state newspaper Al Ahram.

But several independent analysts said the hasty way in which it was prepared led to more problems than any ideological agenda. Instead of starting from scratch and drawing on the lessons of other countries, the deadline-conscious drafters tinkered with Egypt's existing Constitution, without attempting to radically remake Egyptian law in any particular direction, said Ziad al-Ali, who has tracked the assembly for the International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organization in Sweden.

On the question of Islamic law's place in Egyptian jurisprudence, the assembly left unchanged a longstanding article at the beginning of the text grounding Egyptian law in the "principles of Islamic law."

But in an attempted compromise between the ultraconservatives and their liberal opponents, the proposed constitution added a new article defining those principles in accordance with established schools of Sunni Muslim thought.

Some liberals expressed fear that conservative Islamist judges and lawmakers could ultimately use the new clause to push Egypt to the right. But liberals who signed on to the compromise said the language was broad enough to give judges grounds to argue for individual rights, too.

Egypt's generals, who seized power at Mr. Mubarak's ouster and who relinquished it to Mr. Morsi only in August, retain many of their prerogatives. The defense minister would be chosen from the military's officers. Insulating the armed forces from parliamentary oversight, a special council that includes military officers would oversee military affairs and the defense budget. And the military would retain the ability to try civilians in military courts if they are accused of damaging the armed forces. On individual rights, the constitution is a muddle. Believers in any of the three Abrahamic religions -- Islam, Christianity and Judaism -- are guaranteed the freedom of worship, but only those three.

The constitution calls for freedom from discrimination, but does not specify whether women or religious minorities are protected. A provision on women's equality was left out to avoid a dispute after ultraconservatives insisted that women's equality should be qualified by compliance with religious laws.

The text also offers no guidance about how to balance its broad protections of freedom of expression against other provisions protecting people or religions from insults. "These contradictions were either intentional or based on ignorance of how rights should be protected, or both," said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who tracked the document.

In some places, the charter also provides for "society" as well as the state to play a role in upholding family values or moral standards, which critics said could open the door to vigilante pressure from self-appointed moral guardians. "Is 'society' me and my friends in my neighborhood?" asked Mr. Ali of the International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance.

He noted that another article in the document calls for the election of local councils in each province but keeps all the power in the hands of federally appointed governors. And even though Egypt's pervasive public corruption was a major complaint by those who forced Mr. Mubarak from power, the assembly declined to borrow any international models to promote transparency, he said. "There won't be a huge improvement in the way government works and the way services are delivered, and that is a setback for democracy."

Mohamed Mohyi el-Din, a delegate in the assembly, opened the session by pleading for more time to try to reach consensus. "We shouldn't rush the draft of the constitution because we're afraid of this or that, or because there's a 'million-man' march today or tomorrow," he said.

Some of the secular boycotters wanted "to topple the assembly" to embarrass its Islamist leaders, Mr. Mohyi el-Din said, while the Islamists were rushing "to save the president." Both sides are maneuvering for parliamentary elections, but Mr. Mohyi el-Din begged them to put partisanship aside. "Our ultimate goal is Egypt," he said.

Sitting atop the raised dais in the wood-paneled chamber of the upper house of Parliament, Judge Hossam el-Gheriani, the assembly's chairman, would not be delayed. He refused to wait for negotiations to lure back the boycotters. "We will start work," he said, "and we're waiting for them to catch up to us."

Secular opposition groups have called for a protest against the charter on Friday. And on Sunday, the Supreme Constitutional Court is expected to issue a ruling that could dissolve the assembly, which was the reason for the rush.

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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