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Egypt's new constitution unlikely to put an end to country's internal conflict

January 23, 2014 at 5:44 am

Over the last few years, Egypt has been home to repeated political turmoil. During the Arab Spring revolution in 2011, long-time military dictator Hosni Mubarak was toppled. Subsequent elections saw the Muslim Brotherhood, headed by Mohammed Morsi, take control of the country. They, in turn, were toppled in July 2013, and the military took over once again.

The country’s constitution has gone through a similarly tumultuous process. In December 2102 a new constitution was passed by a majority of voters in a referendum, but the turnout was low (around 33%). Liberals, secularists, and the Coptic Church objected to the constitution, which was said to disproportionately represent the views of conservatives and Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood. The incident was used as one of the key examples of Morsi – despite being the democratically elected president of Egypt – not behaving in a democratic and pluralistic way.

This week, the interim government finalised a new draft of the constitution, with extensive amendments made to Morsi’s version. A new 50 member panel declared on Monday that it was finished, paving the way for a nationwide referendum within 30 days to ratify the document.

Redrafting the constitution was a central part of the democratic transition promised by the military when it removed Morsi from power in July. But it appears that the new version of the constitution may face many of the same problems as the last – namely, a failure to get agreement from Islamist and secularist factions. The new constituent assembly included one member of the ultraconservative Nour party, but no-one from Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has been repressed by the military-backed authorities since July’s coup. Many Brotherhood members and supporters are currently in jail. The group rejected the new document, saying that “abusive coup-ists” were trying to “distort Egypt’s legitimate constitution”. Morsi supporters continued to protest in Tahrir Square.

So what does the new constitution actually say? The new draft waters down many of the religious provisions made in the earlier version. It weakens Islamist clauses relating to sharia law, morality, and blasphemy. It also asserts the freedom of the army from civilian oversight by – in a key section – giving the military final say over who is defence minister for the next eight years. After this transitional period (the next two presidential terms) is over, it is not clear how the defence minister will be appointed. The army will be allowed to avoid scrutiny of its spending by listing its budget as a single entry in the nation’s accounts. Ultimately, what these changes amount to is enshrining the military’s position as the nation’s most powerful institution, while also removing clauses which liberals feared could set the stage for the formation of a fully Islamic state.

The end result is curiously double edged. The new constitution enshrines personal and political rights in stronger language than any previous constitution. It criminalises torture and commits to equality between men and women, as well as guaranteeing “absolute” freedom of belief. However, rights experts have noted that the extent of the political power reserved for the military could essentially leave these rights irrelevant. Many liberals in the country have cautiously welcomed the charter, although there is widespread disappointment that – like its previous iteration – it allows military trials for civilians. This was a practice introduced in the Mubarak-era. Around 10,000 civilians were hauled before military tribunals in the 17-months following Mubarak’s fall. Because of this continued practice, some human rights advocates will reject the new document.

The new draft of the constitution is the first important step towards implementing the political transition promised by the military when it removed Morsi from power. But as the gulf between liberals and conservatives, Islamists and secularists, continues to grow ever-wider in Egypt, it seems unlikely that it will put an end to the country’s internal conflict.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.