In Wednesday meeting, constitutional committee can’t find middle ground

A deadlock seems imminent for the 50-member constitutional committee, with less than a month before the deadline for the final draft of Egypt’s new constitution.

Discussions on the most contentious articles, particularly those regarding identity, the rights of minorities — including Copts and women — and military trials for civilians appear to have reached an impasse as divided committee members fail to reach a middle ground.

The state-run Middle East News Agency (MENA) reported that the committee bowed to pressure from Al-Azhar and the hardline conservative Salafi Nour Party, and removed one article defining Egypt as a “civil state.”

The committee also reportedly agreed to preserve the wording of the hotly debated Article 2 from the suspended 2012 Constitution — drafted by an Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly — which stipulates that Sharia is the main source of legislation.

Committee members rejected a proposed amendment to Article 3, which guarantees the rights of “non-Muslims” to resort to their own religious jurisdiction. They kept the wording of the 2012 article, which strictly defines “non-Muslims” as followers of the “heavenly religions”— that is, Copts and Jews. Other religious minorities, such as the Ba’hei, do not have the right to their own jurisdiction under this wording.

However, committee member Mohamed Ghoniem asserted that the committee did agree to guarantee the freedom of belief to all citizens of all religions, provided they were not “violating public order.”

Al-Azhar was written into the draft constitution as “the basic frame of reference in religious sciences and Islamic affairs” — a moderation of the 2012 Constitution, which defined Al-Azhar as the only frame of reference for the jurisdiction and implementation of Sharia.

Not all committee members were happy with the change. “If there is no authority for Al-Azhar when it comes to religious issues, who should have the authority?” argued Chancellor Mohamed Abdel Salam, MENA reported.

While those matters were resolved, Article 21 — which outlines the principles of Sharia — continues to be a hot button issue. Bishop Boula, a representative of the Orthodox Church, threatened to withdraw from the committee over this article, as did the Nour Party’s representative earlier.

In a press conference following the committee’s Wednesday meeting, Boula said he would refuse to allow Article 219 in the constitution’s introduction, adding that the draft constitution’s first chapter is “perfectly Salafist.”

“We have never been a part of the dialogue between Al-Azhar and the Salafi Nour Party regarding Sharia and other identity-related articles,” Boual argued, adding that the reconciliation between Salafi groups and Al-Azhar was conducted without including the church.

But committee spokesman Mohamed Salmawi told MENA that Article 219 was never discussed within the committee, and would not be included in the draft constitution.

The issue of military trials for civilians is also being divisively disputed by the 50 members.

Representatives of the military insist on keeping the old formation of the article as written in the 2012 Constitution, which stipulates that civilians would not be referred to military tribunals, except in cases of crimes targeting the Armed Forces.

Mahmoud Badr — co-founder of the grassroots Tamarod (Rebel) campaign and a committee member — claimed in a press conference that arguments are currently focused on whether the issue of military trials should be written into the constitution, or stipulated in the draft law defining the military judiciary’s powers.

“The committee intends to draft army-related articles in a way that will enjoy the consensus of Egyptians,” Badr said in the press conference.

As for women’s rights in the draft constitution, the latest stipulation of the article guaranteeing women’s right to political participation drew criticism from representatives of the National Women’s Council (NWC).

This version of the article says the state is obliged to guarantee an “adequate representation” of women in Parliament and local municipalities, while the NWC argues that the article should say “fair representation.”

But legal representatives in the committee fear that guaranteeing a “fair representation” may pressure legislators to impose a 50 percent quota for women while drafting the elections law.

NWC head and member of the committee Mervat al-Talawy expressed disappointment over the current wording of the article, as well as the draft’s failure to explicitly guarantee quotas for women in government bodies.

“A quota for women in the constitution would have shown an appreciation for the sacrifices presented by Egyptian women across the last decades for the development of the society,” Talawy argued in a statement, asking how the “revolution’s constitution” could not guarantee the rights of women.

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