The Explosive Debate Over Egypt's New Constitution

An estimated 100,000 people are protesting Mohammad Morsi, partly because of a controversial draft constitution. But what exactly does the document say?

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Members of Egypt's constitution committee meet at the Shura Council for the final vote on a draft new Egyptian constitution in Cairo on November 29, 2012. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Egypt's constitutional assembly pulled an all-nighter last week to hastily approve a controversial draft of a new constitution. However, the constitutional battle is far from over. Yesterday, protests rocked the country, and a crowd of some 100,000 people staged a so-called "last warning" demonstration near the presidential palace against President Morsi's heavy-handed tactics. In addition, hundreds of journalists marched on Tahrir and at least a dozen of the country's independent newspapers did not publish to protest against Morsi's "dictatorship."

The battle now moves to December 15, when Egyptians are slated to vote on the constitution in a national referendum. Liberal and secular opponents of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the draft constitution are urging widespread civil disobedience to derail the vote; on the other hand, the Brotherhood and its allies are portraying a "yes" vote as crucial for restoring stability to the country and moving forward. Given Egyptians' weariness of nearly two years of political paralysis and economic dislocation, the Brotherhood's arguments for stability could easily carry the day.

This would be an enormous lost opportunity for Egypt. While the poorly organized opposition, having lost repeatedly at the polls, is showing clear signs of obstructionism, the fact is that the constitution falls down on several critical issues, namely the protection of women's rights, religious freedom, and freedom of the press.

The role of women in society has been a contentious issue since the start of the transition. As I mentioned on Thursday, the draft constitution does not proactively provide for equality, unlike a previous (though still controversial) clause in an earlier version of the draft. The draft does say in the preamble that "Equality and equal opportunities are established for all citizens, men and women..." The emphasis in Article 10 however is on preserving and "the genuine character of the Egyptian family..." -- not-so- subtle code for keeping women in a traditional role.

Advocates like Human Rights Watch have spoken out against this ambiguous language, noting that it could be implemented in a way that undermines women's rights. It is also worth mentioning that only four women participated in the 85-strong constitutional assembly body that ultimately ratified the draft constitution.

With respect to religious freedom, the draft constitution says, "The State shall guarantee the freedom to practice religious rites and to establish places of worship for the divine religions [also translated as "monotheistic religions"], as regulated by law." This is a step back from the 1971 constitution, which did not restrict religious freedom. Some fear that this article will further imperil already embattled religious minorities, such as as Egypt's Baha'is.

The draft constitution's implications for freedom of speech are also worrisome. Of particular concern to journalists are provisions that ban blasphemy and certain forms of "insult"; articles that seem to give the government a heavy hand in editorial control; and potential, if still ambiguous, limitations on press freedom in accordance with the "requirements of national security" and "the basic principles of the State and society," as explained in Article 48.

Although the draft constitution does have laudable aspects -- e.g, term limits for the president and protections against arbitrary detention and torture -- it is a document with serious problems that should not be rushed through into law.

The silver lining of Morsi's overreach could be that he has done what no opposition leader has been able to do: unite the fractious critics of the Muslim Brotherhood. Today in the Financial Times, former International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei wrote that the National Salvation Front, a newly formed opposition umbrella group of which he is the co-coordinator, has brought together "almost all non-Islamist parties." Indeed, most of the presidential contenders who ran and lost against Morsi -- including Amr Moussa, Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, and Hamdeen Sabahi -- have joined the Front. Whether the group can hold together remains to be seen, but for now it is the best hope for providing what Egypt desperately needs: a coherent, organized, and loyal opposition that can challenge the Islamist juggernaut.

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