CAIRO – Extensive amendments of the constitution adopted under Egypt’s ousted Islamist president give the military more privileges, enshrining its place as the nation’s most powerful institution and the source of real power, while removing parts that liberals feared set the stage for the creation of an Islamic state.
The new draft constitution is a key first step in implementing a political transition laid down by the military after it removed Mohammed Morsi from power. A 50 member panel declared the draft finished Monday, paving the way for a nationwide referendum within 30 days to ratify the document.
The military-backed government has heralded the draft charter as a step toward democracy — seeking to prove the credentials of the post-Morsi system amid continuing protests by Islamists furious over the coup against the country’s first freely elected president.
The amended document enshrines personal and political rights in stronger language than past constitutions. But rights experts express fears that the political power carved out for the military could leave those rights irrelevant.
One key clause states that for the next two presidential terms, the armed forces will enjoy the exclusive right of naming the defense minister, an arrangement that gives the military autonomy above any civilian oversight and leaves the power of the president uncertain. The charter does not say how the post will be filled following that eight-year transitional period.
“This just paves the way for a bigger role for the army in becoming the main power broker,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a leading member of the Revolutionary Socialists movement, a key player in the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who ruled the country for 29 years.
The run-up to the referendum is likely to be contentious. Egypt’s new leadership is pushing for the revised charter to win by a greater margin than the 2012 one, which was the country’s first post-Mubarak constitution and was largely drafted by Morsi’s Islamist allies.
That document won a December 2012 referendum with about 64 percent of the vote, but with a low turnout of little more than 30 percent. A bigger margin and stronger turnout now could be touted as a show of the legitimacy of the post-coup system.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and its followers, however, reject the new government and the entire transition process, demanding Morsi’s return — and they are likely to push ahead with protests to try to derail the new document. Some secular activists will also likely campaign against the new charter because of the power it gives the military.
The constitutional panel, appointed by the government and dominated by liberals, worked mainly behind closed doors. On Monday, with their work completed, the members praised the 67-page draft.
“It is now the right of every Egyptian to declare that this is their constitution,” said Bishop Bola, the representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church on the panel.
“I believe this is a constitution for a civic, modern and democratic state in 90 percent of its articles. It’s a leap in Egypt’s life and I hope people vote for it in large numbers,” said leftist politician and panel member Hussein Abdel-Razik.
The one ultraconservative Islamist on the panel, Mohammed Ibrahim Mansour of the al-Nour Party, said the document struck a good balance between the teachings of Islam and civil freedoms.
His support comes despite the removal of several provisions that ultraconservative Islamists had introduced into the Morsi-era charter, worrying liberals who feared they could be a prelude toward stricter implementation of Shariah law.
The new version retains Article 2, which says the “principles” of Shariah law are the basis for legislation, a phrase that has been in all Egyptian constitutions since the 1970s.
But it removes a Morsi-era provision that gave a more precise definition for “principles” that could have been used to legislate stricter Islamic law. It also deletes a reference to a role for Al-Azhar, the country’s main Islamic institution, in overseeing legislation.
The new charter also goes further than its predecessors in guaranteeing freedom of expression and other rights. It criminalizes torture and ensures equality between men and women, as well as women’s and children’s rights. It guarantees the freedom of belief as “absolute.”
It also empowers lawmakers to remove the president with a two-thirds majority, forces the president to declare his financial assets and bans political parties founded on religion, sect or region. Artists, writers and filmmakers are guaranteed unbridled freedom to create.
But the power of the military enshrined in the document raises concerns that those rights could be undermined. The new draft removes some loopholes that Mubarak’s military-backed regime used to get around rights guarantees — but there are fears that rights could be swept under the rug in the name of security.
Since Morsi’s ouster, hundreds of his supporters have been killed by security forces in a crackdown on protests. Pro-Morsi Islamist TV channels have been shut down and this week, two of the iconic secular “revolutionaries” of the 2011 revolt — Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Ahmed Maher — were detained under a Draconian law banning any protests without a police permit.
The new charter also fails to ensure any level of transparency for the armed forces’ budget or details of its vast economic empire, which includes interests in construction, road building, bottled water and land reclamation.
Civilians can still be tried before military tribunals, a provision introduced in the Morsi-era constitution and a major source of tension between rights groups and the military since Mubarak’s ouster. The new version appears to try to limit that authority by defining the charges that could lead to military trial — but still includes such scenarios as getting into a fistfight with an off-duty officer or the attendant of a military-owned gas station.
Some 10,000 civilians are believed to have been hauled before military tribunals when generals were in power for nearly 17 months after Mubarak’s ouster.
Except for Morsi’s year in office, Egypt has been ruled by men of military background since 1952, when officers staged a coup and toppled the monarchy. Though popularly backed, the July 3 coup that removed Morsi returned the military to the helm.
There has been widespread speculation that military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi could run for president — something he has not ruled out.
Presidential and parliamentary elections are set to follow, in the spring and summer of next year, once the constitution is approved.
Though the original military transition plan called for the parliamentary vote to take place first, that could change — the new draft charter leaves unclear which will happen first, saying only that one of the votes must take place within 90 days of the constitution’s adoption, with the other to follow within six months.