How Bad Is Egypt’s New Constitution?

Wednesday, January 02, 2013 |  Elizabeth Blade

Now that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has pushed through a new constitution, he has vowed to concentrate on the crippling economy, as well as on what he called “production, work, seriousness and effort” by the Egyptian people. But tensions remain in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, where protesters continue venting anger over a constitution that (according to them) violates the rights of women and minorities, favors Islamists, betrays the pro-democracy revolution and deepens divisions inside the country.

Morsi insists the new constitution will stabilize Egypt and secure democracy.

What the Constitution Says

  • The new basic law sets a limit of two four-year presidential terms;
  • It seals the Muslim Brotherhood’s alliance with the military;
  • It provides the military with protection against interference by civilian institutions and powers (read: courts);
  • It states that Islamic principles shall remain the main source of legislation, adding that their interpretation is the responsibility of the clerics at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, rather than the courts (in other words, no judicial oversight);
  • It underlines women’s commitments to family and home; and
  • It gives Christians and Jews the right to practice their religions (as opposed to Shia Muslims, Baha’i, Buddhists, Hindus and others who were granted the freedom of belief, but not the freedom of practice).

Some have hailed the document as being among the best constitutions in the world. Others charge that it is nothing more than a move to cement Muslim Brotherhood control of Egypt for the foreseeable future.

Not So Bad(?)

Amr Zakariya, an Egyptian scholar and a founding member of Afaq, an institute for Middle East Studies in Cairo, who is also known for his Facebook page “Talking Peace”, stated, “The new constitution is much better than the one from 1971.”

Zakariya claimed in remarks to Israel Today that the Muslim Brotherhood constitution is “well-balanced, fair and lacks any discrimination and inequality. The document vows not to interfere in religious matters of Christians and Jews, which is crucial for democracy.”

Zakariya also saw the constitutions effort to combine two distinct forms of government – presidential and parliamentary – as beneficial for Egyptians. “It does give a lot of power to the president, but it also grants a lot of authority to the prime minister, who is appointed by the parliament,” he explained.

The problem with that view, of course, is that Egypt’s parliament is also dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and allied Islamist factions, meaning Morsi won’t have any problem passing laws, no matter how abusive they might be.

By Islamists, For Islamists

Many of the constitution’s critics in Egypt have charged that the document was drafted by a panel made up almost exclusively of Islamists eager to tighten their grip over Egypt.

Zakariya disagreed: “The constitution was crafted by a group of people coming from different backgrounds. Only one third of them were Muslim Brothers,” though he failed to give the percentage that were from other Islamist parties.

Regardless, the pundit insisted that Islamists are legitimate members of the parliament since they were elected in free and democratic elections.

Stabilizing Factor, or Source of Division?

“It’s unfortunate that some people try to link this constitution to the Muslim Brotherhood and present it as the enemy of the people, even though it can be beneficial for the country,” lamented Zakariya. “I didn’t vote for Morsi. Nor did I support Islamist parties. But I do back the constitution even though it was proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood, primarily because it will stabilize Egypt.”

However, stability doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

Seven of Morsi's leading advisers have resigned over the past month, with some saying they had not been consulted over the president's moves. Crowds took the resignation of top-ranking officials as a protest against biased and undemocratic constitution. Violent clashes erupted in Egypt’s major cities, killing at least eight people in Cairo and injuring dozens others.

Zakariya blamed minority and foreign forces: “Of course there are people who oppose the constitution, but they are the minority. A lot of poor and uneducated people voted against the draft, brainwashed by the liberal [Egyptian and foreign] media that tried to present the document as a manifesto of radicals eager to tighten the noose around Egyptians’ necks.”

But in a country where 28 percent of the population is illiterate, “the poor and the uneducated” can be a significant number able to determine the outcome of the vote. Zakariya elaborated: “Apart from Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood voters who backed the constitution (roughly 20 percent of the total population), the draft was also supported by the high and middle class Egyptians, the educated layers that understand the benefits of the document.”

Threat of Civil War

The question is: if the rift between the two camps is so wide, is there a possibility of a civil war?

Zakariya said it was out of the question. “Firstly, we don’t have any ethnic groups that could trigger such developments. The only situation in which a civil war would be possible is a major confrontation between Muslims and Christians, but I don’t see it happening any time soon. Secondly, the army won’t let it happen. It will come to the defense of the people just like it did during the [January 2011] revolution. And, thirdly, Egyptians don’t have the weapons to stage a war. Arms are still controlled and regulated by police and the armed forces.” [Editor’s note: Those are the same armed forces that the new constitution made beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood.]

The Council on Foreign Relations, a US-based think, echoed Zakariya’s views, concluding that the possibility of an Egyptian civil war was low due to divisions within the opposition.

“There is a real struggle for power in Egypt between the Islamist forces and the secular opposition, which is extremely fragmented,” noted the council. “[But] the two sides are not fighting with the same weapons. The Muslim Brotherhood are fighting in the electoral arena, not necessarily because they are more democratic, but because they can win the elections. … The secular opposition does not have the support of a unified organization to win elections and are using the courts to bolster their own power.” [Editor’s note: Again, these are the same courts whose powers of governmental oversight have been significantly reduced by the new constitution.]

What About Israel?

How will the new constitution influence the Israeli-Egyptian ties?

Ruth Wasserman Lande, a PhD Candidate on Israeli-Egyptian relations at Oxford University and former deputy chief of mission at Israeli Embassy in Egypt, summed up the situation thus:

“The [Egyptian] constitution is problematic in the sense that it allows a significant concentration of powers in the hands of the President, without enough checks and balances as is required in a modern-day democracy.

“Nonetheless, this is an internal difficulty. Contrary to others, I do not believe that the nature of the constitution and Morsi’s leadership will necessary cause a serious rift in Israeli-Egyptian relations, given mutual strategic interests.

“[But] I feel that the US has a critical role here and one which should not be missed. Moreover, the EU is completely silent and unheard on this issue, while it should engaging in a constructive role as a body that encourages cooperation between Egypt and Israel for the benefit of both sides as well as regional stability.”

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