(CNSNews.com) – Given just two weeks to consider the merits of a draft national constitution that will affect their lives for the foreseeable future, Egyptians were taking to the streets in large numbers on Tuesday to protest the latest development in their country’s chaotic political transition.
Drafted by Islamists over the concerns of many non-Muslims and secularist-minded Egyptians, the draft text will be put to a national referendum on December 15, President Mohammed Morsi announced late last week.
The draft constitution has deepened divisions in Egyptian society. Among those supporting it are Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour Party – the two parties which together dominated the elected legislature (whose future remains uncertain since a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling last June).
Also voicing support are Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential Qatar-based Sunni cleric regarded as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who spoke favorably about the draft on his television program Sunday; and Al Azhar University, the Cairo-based institution traditionally viewed as the leading worldwide authority in Sunni Islam.
Opponents of the draft constitution and referendum plan include Coptic Christians, some minority Shia and Sufi Muslims, liberal and secular political parties, and prominent figures including one-time presidential hopefuls Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei.
The judiciary also appears to be divided, with some judges saying they will refuse to oversee the referendum, as required by law. But the Supreme Judicial Council was reported by state media Monday to have agreed to supervise the process.
The rush to push ahead with the constitution followed Morsi’s controversial November 22 decree exempting his decisions from judicial challenge.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday both decisions, taken despite a lack of consensus across the political system, were of concern to the U.S., the international community and Egyptians themselves.
“To redeem the promise of their revolution, Egypt will need a constitution that protects the rights of all, creates strong institutions, and reflects an inclusive process,” she said in a speech in Washington.
The State Department has not issued any critique of the draft.
“Primarily it’s the Egyptians that are going to have to speak with regard to whether this meets the aspirations that they have,” department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday, while at Monday’s press briefing her colleague, Mark Toner, limited his comments to the importance of the referendum being monitored by impartial observers and for a peaceful and secure voting environment.
The 236-article draft on which Egyptians will vote includes one significant change from earlier versions – the removal of a clause stating that women and men are equal “without violating the principles of shari’a” (Islamic law).
Instead the draft, without specifically referring to the protection of women’s rights, includes an article stating “All citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination.”
The change is important, since in countries where gender equality is conditional on shari’a women face discrimination in multiple areas, including inheritance, divorce, the right to own property, and legal standing.
The draft retains numerous provisions have that generated concern among secularist and religious minority Egyptians. Some include:
--The retention of “principles of Islamic shari’a” as “the principal source of legislation,” a provision strongly opposed by many minority Coptic Christians. (Article 2)
--The affirmation of the primary role of Al Azhar University to interpret shari’a. The Sunni institution’s “senior scholars are to be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law.” Also, possible future Islamic reformist tendencies are implicitly ruled out by a provision linking the principles of shari’a to “credible sources accepted in Sunni doctrines and by the larger community.” (Articles 4, 219)
--The decision to make the state responsible for protecting family values, ethics, public morality and public order, and for fostering “religious and patriotic values.” (Articles 10, 11)
--The non-recognition of all religions other than Islam, Christianity and Judaism, a provision that leaves the status of Egypt’s small Baha’i community in limbo. (Articles 3, 43)
--The prohibition of “insult or abuse of all religious messengers and prophets,” a clause opening the door for Islamists to take legal action against anyone they deem to have “blasphemed” Mohammed. (Article 44)
--The limiting of press freedom by making it conditional on the upholding of the principles of “the state and society” (therefore including religious considerations) and “national security.” (Article 48)
“Morsi no doubt is betting that the public will decisively approve the constitution in the upcoming referendum and all will be forgotten,” Isobel Coleman, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an analysis last week.
“Indeed, Egyptians – exhausted by all the political bickering – might very well approve the constitution,” she argued, “but the risk is that this power-play promises to just deepen divisions.”