Monday, December 23, 2013

Egypt's New Constitution: As Bad as its Old One?

Michael Armanious

Amr Moussa, chairman of the committee tasked with amending the Islamist constitution, talked about how the new constitution guarantees that Egypt will have a "civilian government" and promote the creation of a "democratic and modern country."
But he did not promise that it would be a secular one. Moussa asserts that the new constitution bans the creation of parties based on religion, but it gives Egypt's theocrats-in-waiting a way to get around the ban on by allowing parties to be established on "Islamic reference"; and Article Two remains.
"In Egypt, a civil state means a modern nationalist state that is compatible with Islamist provisions." — Ali Gomaa, Egypt's former Grand Mufti.
Egypt's interim president Adly Mansour has set January 14 and 15, 2014, as the dates for a referendum on the country's amended constitution.
Amr Moussa – the chairman of the (fifty-member) Committee of Fifty tasked with amending the 2012 Islamist constitution – appeared in multiple televised interviews to tell about the importance of the new amended constitution for the future of Egypt. He talked about how the new constitution guarantees that Egypt will have a "civilian government" and will promote the creation of a "democratic and modern country." He stressed that Egypt will have no military or theocratic government. He also listed several articles that will guarantee freedom for Egyptians, including freedom of religion and freedom of expression.
A closer look at the constitution itself reveals that it is not the freedom-promoting document Moussa describes it as being.

Amr Moussa, pictured here at a 2013 World Economic Forum conference, says that Egypt's proposed constitution will not allow for a military or theocratic government. (Image source: World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebell)

The amended constitution still includes Article Two of the previous constitution, which states that Islam is Egypt's religion and that the "principles" of the Islamic Sharia law are the country's main source of legislation. This clearly puts Egypt's religious minorities, most notably the Coptic Christians, in a position of extreme vulnerability. When this was pointed out, Moussa stated that there was nothing to be done because the article had been approved unanimously by the Committee of Fifty, which included Coptic leaders. What Moussa failed to report, however, was that a Copt who served on the Committee of Fifty openly admitted on national television that he had caved into the demands of Islamists who want to turn Egypt into an Islamic theocracy.
Retaining Article Two is not the only problem with the constitution. It also places Egypt's military beyond civilian oversight, rendering the phrase "civilian government" meaningless. This condition is a huge problem: Egypt's armed forces have amassed an enormous and independent economic empire which includes gas stations, banquet halls, construction operations, factories, and vast tracts of land. Consequently, Egyptian generals are the feudal lords of modern Egypt; their underlings are their squires and scribes, and those outside the military are turned into defenseless peasants.
This arrangement is solidified by another part of the constitution that allows Egyptian civilians to be tried in a military court. In an effort to allay fear over this, Moussa stressed that civilians can only be tried in a military court in specific kinds of cases – when someone attacks a military buildings or equipment, for example.
But Major General Medhat Radwan Gazi, chief of military justice, contradicted Mr. Moussa. Gazi confirmed that disputes between civilians and the operators of military owned-businesses could be settled by a military court to protect the officers or soldiers who work and manage these businesses.
Gazi also said that there is no difference between an officer defending the country in a tank or pumping gas or managing a gas station. They are all officers of the armed forces, so any dispute with the public will be tried in military court. In sum, the proposed constitution entrenches a modern-day system of feudalism in the land of the Nile.
This plan is a disaster. Egypt has been under military rule for over 61 years, and emergency laws have been used for over 32 years of its recent history. Thousands of civilians have been tried and convicted in military courts for all kinds of charges. Gazi confirmed that the armed forces will continue governing Egypt for the foreseeable future.
One would think that in exchange for cementing the status of Egypt's generals as modern-day Pharaohs, the new constitution would at least protect Egyptian citizens from an onslaught of theocratic extremism. It does not.
Moussa asserts that the new constitution bans the establishment of political parties based on religion, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, but it gives Egypt's theocrats-in-waiting a way to get around this ban by allowing parties to be established on "Islamic reference."
What is the difference? So far, 11 parties have already followed this path, including the Hizb El-Benaa Wa El-Tanmia, and the Al Nour Party.
Further, while Moussa stated that under the new constitution Egypt would have a civilian state, he did not promise that it would be a secular one. When Christian leaders expressed concern that the proposed constitution did not call for the creation of secular government that would protect their rights, Moussa said told people not to get hung up on technicalities.
This is no technicality. It was the Salafist Nour party that insisted on using the phrase "a civilian government" as a way to protect Egypt's Islamist parties. Again and again, the Salafis, who believe that the non-Muslim cannot rule over a Muslim, have insisted that the president should not be a Christian or a woman.
Under the proposed "civilian" government (even one that privileges the military), such an arrangement is completely intolerable because it does not address Egypt's real challenges.
What Moussa describes as a "technicality" is actually a loophole the size of a mosque (or an armored personnel carrier). Egypt's former Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, gave the game away in an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm in which he stated that the concept of a civil government does not contradict Islamic law, but conforms to it. "In Egypt," he stated, "a civil state means a modern nationalist state that is compatible with Islamic provisions … Egypt did not import the civil state model from the West and that model has existed for about 150 years." Gomaa explained the state's constitution, institutions, parliament, and administrative and judicial systems are "all consistent with Islamic Sharia" which allows the adoption of a "civil model" of governance. He adds also "Egypt's Islamic identity does not clash with its civil system, which defends citizens' rights regardless of their faith."
More obfuscation.
Yes, the proposed constitution states that freedom of "belief" is "absolute" for all Egyptians. However, the religious practices and the building of houses of worship for Christians and Jews are still regulated by the government.
Let's be clear: Even Jews and Christians do not enjoy religious freedom in Egypt and, under the new constitution, will not. There are only 49 Jews – all of them elderly women – in the land of the Nile. Why so few? Because they were driven out. Does Moussa think Jews will be returning to Egypt to exercise their rights under the new constitution even as they are demonized throughout the country in the media and in mosques?
Egypt's Christians are, thankfully, more numerous, accounting for about 10-15% of the total population of nearly 90 million. But there are fewer than 2,500 churches in Egypt compared to more than 120,000 government-owned and -sponsored mosques.
Christians who want to repair a church must obtain written permission from the governor of the local province. They also need to obtain the local Muslim community's approval, and permission from local and national security officials. The process can take up 20 years. By way of comparison, there are no restrictions on building mosques.
Under the proposed constitution, people who worship a non-Abrahamic faith (or what Islamic scholars refer to as the "heavenly religions" of Islam, Christianity and Judaism) have no rights at all. To put it plainly, the new constitution deprives Egypt's Bahais and Shia Muslims of any rights whatsoever. They are Egyptian citizens, but the proposed constitution does not even acknowledge their existence.
This total dismissal of one's own citizens is a scandal. Egypt's Bahai population consists of about about 7,000 to 15,000, and they are regarded as enemies of state in part because the founder of this faith, Bahaullah, was buried in Israel (when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire).
The official government ID card lists a person's religion. Muslim (Sunni and Shia), Christians, and Jews are obliged to list their religion, but not a Bahai. Consequently, the Bahai community will continue to have hardship in finding jobs, child custody, and marriage. Shia Muslims, who number under a million, and whose leaders have been murdered in the streets by Salafists, with little response from the Egyptian police, will also continue to suffer.
Under the new order to be legitimized by this constitution, free speech will be just a dream, as demonstrated by the silencing of Bassam Youssef, a popular satirist known as "Egypt's Jon Stewart". He gained popularity after January 25, 2011, and was credited for helping to remove the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) from power on June 30, 2013. In his first and the last episode in October of his show, which his father last week said will be resuming in February, he took aim at the public who idolized General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. One company sought to cash in on this infatuation by creating a new chocolate brand with Al-Sisi's name. Youssef took aim at this occurrence with his usual satire and his television show, which had 30 million viewers. A few days later the show was suspended. It is still off the air. Government censorship of the media, however, has not stopped Moussa from bragging about the article which, in the new constitution, supposedly protects freedom of expression.
To be fair, when General Al-Sisi sided with the majority of Egyptians and removed the Ikhwan from power, he put his life on the line with such a heroic act. But he should not be idolized as was Egypt's former President, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Like any political leader, he is human and needs to be held accountable.
Moussa and the rest of Egypt's leaders should consider that transparency, and respecting people's right to conscience, is the only way for Egypt to move forward.
It is time for Egyptians to realize their dreams of a dignified life. Establishing a government that places the country's military outside of civilian oversight, and creating a back door for theocrats to take over, is not the way to empower people or create a flourishing and stable society.
The Egyptian constitution, and the government it establishes, need to acknowledge the rights and dignity of all of its citizens. Any document that does otherwise, is an insult to the Almighty, in whose image we are created equal, and to the people over whom it rules.

Michael Armanious, a U.S.-based news analyst and video producer, was born and raised in Egypt.

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