The constituent assembly tasked with drafting Egypt’s post-revolution constitution has passed the document as the country continues to reel from a decree that gave extraordinary powers to the president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.
The assembly, hit by walkouts from minority groups and liberal voices opposed to Islamist domination, worked through the night after the absent members were replaced and voting commenced on the document article by article.
The draft had been criticised for its ambiguous language on human rights, minority rights and freedom of expression, as well as its concentration on enshrining sharia law as the basis for legislature. It also protects army privileges that revolutionary forces want rescinded, including the ability to try civilians in military courts.
The draft must now be put to a nationwide referendum within 30 days. Morsi said the vote would be held “soon”.
The Islamist-dominated assembly that has been working on the constitution for months raced to pass it, voting article by article on the draft’s more than 230 articles for more than 16 hours. Of the 85 members in attendance, there was not a single Christian and only four women.
Articles that were passed included one prohibiting the insult or slander of any person, which could prove troublesome for free speech. However, the rights of expression, the press and belief were included and passed. The right of religious practice was also included, but extended only to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Article 36 included an 11th-hour addition of the word “torture” in the article regarding treatment of detainees. Initially the article had stipulated that detainees should be treated “with respect” and not “humiliated”.
“The Muslim Brotherhood can succeed in passing this constitution despite the opposition but in so doing they are likely to poison the country’s political atmosphere for years to come and my assumption is that the constitution, if passed, will not survive beyond Brotherhood rule,” said Elijah Zarwan, a Cairo-based fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations.
Egypt has been plunged into a constitutional crisis since a self-issued decree by Morsi gave him sweeping powers and immunity from judicial challenges. The decree also granted the constituent assembly immunity from legal challenges, which were already under way and expected to be decided in December.
Morsi’s extraordinary powers will remain in effect until a constitution is passed and a parliament is elected, and while the decree gave the assembly a two-month extension on its work, the decision to finalise and vote on the document within two days has led to criticism that the job is being rushed to temper the outcry.
Morsi was due to address the nation later today, calling for unity and support for his decree, which he insists is merely a temporary measure to ensure that the constituent assembly can continue its work without threat of dissolution by the Egyptian courts.
If the constitution is rejected at referendum, it is then returned to the same assembly for redrafting and Morsi will keep his powers.
And that might be Morsi’s play, according to Zarwan, who said that people might be more willing to accept the constitution in order to put an end to the decree. “For a lot of people they’ll say, ‘Let’s just get on with it.'”
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