Special Report | Egypt: ‘Write your Constitution’ campaign gathers momentum

Last month, the National Council for Women launched a campaign to survey tens of thousands of Egyptians on their preferences regarding the current constitutional review process. Alessandra Bajec reports from Cairo.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Thursday, October 10, 2013 17:24 - 0 Comments

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(Source: panafricannews.blogspot.com)

A month on, the National Council for Women’s (NCW) ‘Write your Constitution’ campaign is showing promising signs of success in encouraging Egyptians to have a say in the drafting process of the new constitution. The NCW has managed to get citizens involved by holding meetings nationwide with different groups and communities in Egypt, as well as civil associations, political parties, trade unions, universities, rural workers and state institutions’ employees.

Questionnaires were distributed to citizens of various age groups, educational and cultural levels around the country’s governorates. A satisfied NCW Chairwoman Mervat al-Talawy stated that: ‘We have so far handed out 27,000 to all governorates, we have been launching training courses to educate people on what is the constitution and the benefits of voting for the constitution’.

The council joined a number of non-governmental organizations in forwarding draft suggestions to the constitutional committee. In Salem’s view, what makes NCW’s campaign different from similar campaigns launched by several other groups is its more direct approach in engaging citizens, opening participation to the wider community and discussing their opinions within the committee. Not restricted to constitutional articles concerning women, the NCW-run survey is concerned with the constitution as a whole.

NCW senior researcher Mona Salem, who has been involved in the campaign’s conversation team, indicated the major issues covered in the questionnaires: equal opportunities for all citizens; a provision on unemployment benefits (missing in the previous charter); a clear-cut article prohibiting child labour and human trafficking; what authority should the president have (the NCW suggested restricting presidential power); and a quota system for women. The NCW has also called for provisions on the adoption; approval or abolition of 50% quota for workers and farmers in Egypt’s Parliament, a point on which Egyptians appear split at the moment.

Some of the useful suggestions brought up by Egyptians included the importance of having a representative quota system for women, the introduction of a critical provision banning child labour, guaranteed free health care and better quality of education.

According to Salem, al-Talawy was successful in relaying a number of pivotal points to the committee, many of which have been turned into articles of the constitutional draft. These include: adding ‘civil’ to the definition of the State under Article 1 to underline that Egypt is not a religious state or one governed by the military; removing expressions strengthening the role of Islamic Sharia in politics and society; changing Article 4 so as not to make it mandatory to consult Al-Azhar on all legislation relating to Sharia; amending Article 54 to prohibit the formation of ‘political parties established on religious foundations’.

Among the proposals focussing on women is the NCW’s suggestion –agreed by the committee- to add a clause in Article 11 saying that the state “ensures protecting women from all kinds of violence [and] that she exercises all her rights as a citizen without discrimination against her.” is noteworthy. Originally, Article 10 of the suspended constitution guaranteed certain social rights for women but did not address the question of violence against them.

Moatamer Amin, one of the 49 alternative members of the constitutional committee, is representative for the youth. He stressed the importance of listening to the demands of citizens, encouraging everybody to give their input, and responding positively to the proposed amendments. ‘It’s a societal contract, we have to reflect what people want to see in their constitution’, he explained.

Shura Council spokesperson Mustafa Helal welcomed the gathering of thousands of questionnaires, which is facilitating the committee’s work. He declared himself hopeful that the largest degree of national consensus will be reached, without the control of a particular faction on the constitution-drafting process. Similarly, senior researcher Salem found the current committee has a fairer representation compared to the previous one. ‘There is now an appointed head for each representative or concerned institution in the country, and the selection criteria are clearer’, she explained.

The previous assembly was dominated by a large Islamist representation (66 out of 100) monopolising the drafting process. Instead, the newly formed assembly has a largely secular composition. While the previous committee was chosen by an Islamist-dominated parliament, the current one was formed following elections through authorities and syndicates, and members of political parties. For Salem, nevertheless, the new assembly should be more representative to include, for example, a special sub-committee for women.

Al-Talawy expressed disappointment about the unsatisfactory status of women representation. She pointed out that women make up half of Egypt’s population, form 44% of the national voting power, yet they are not duly represented in the legislature. In the current constituent assembly, only five seats are occupied by women. Al-Talawy anticipated that the upcoming referendum will be different from the previous one. The initial draft will be discussed in televised plenary sessions, Egyptians will be able to follow what changes to the charter have been proposed. Under Morsi, she recalls, some 17 different drafts were debated, the information given to the public was rather confusing, which resulted in a lower turnout for the constitutional referendum.

In Al-Talawy’s opinion, NCW’s campaign can play an effective role in influencing the writing of the constitution. ‘I’m quite confident, knowing the make-up of the committee, we can’t fail this time’, she asserted. Salem noted that the campaign is going very well. ‘We’re happy to have collected so many suggestions, to be able to involve citizens in writing their own constitution’.

For his part, Amin insists the new constitutional draft will differ fundamentally from the previous charter. Last year’s constitution had 236 articles up for review. In contrast, he explains, committee members have examined 198 articles for this current constitutional review. Out of that total, they have so far finished re-drafting around 91.

Egypt’s 50-member constitutional committee, currently tasked with amending the 2012 Constitution, expects to complete a first draft of the new constitution before the holiday of Eid Al-Adha, due to take place next week. The committee, which started work on 8 September, is required to produce a final draft within 60 days. Within the 50-strong body, each sub-committees is responsible for amending articles in their respective fields of expertise. The amended constitution will be put to a national referendum within 30 days of its completion.

Alessandra Bajec

Alessandra Bajec holds a Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. From 2010 to 2011, she lived in Palestine, starting to work as a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, The Majalla and various Palestinian newswires, among others. Her key areas of interest are the Middle East, geopolitics, peace and human rights. She is currently based in Cairo.

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