Political parties, MPs and civil society organizations in Egypt are now busy investigating how the constitutional amendments approved last March should translate into laws. The public should assume a major role in this process if the amendments are to result in legislation enhancing citizenship concepts and political freedoms, securing fair representation and valuing people’s dignity.
The last Watani Forum session was dedicated to discuss this topic. Representatives of various political and intellectual currents were invited to express their views, to produce a coherent vision that would, hopefully, have an impact on the decision-makers. Reaching areas of agreement is pivotal in the current phase, to create a climate of tolerance at a time of disagreement.
The citizenship concept topped the agenda. “Citizenship” was moved to article 1 of the Constitution. Before, it was only in article 40 which maintained that “Citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination due to sex, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed.” Legislative defects and malpractice, by the public and the establishment alike, rendered article 40 mere rhetoric—inactivate and void of meaning. The new article 1 stipulates that “The Arab Republic of Egypt is a democratic system based upon citizenship concepts”. Although some see no relevance in this shift, bringing citizenship to the forefront of the Constitution is highly significant, especially in face of a widespread tendency by fundamentalists to abuse article 2 which stipulates Islam as the State religion, Arabic its official language, and Islamic jurisprudence the principle source of legislation.
Participants agreed upon the necessity of translating citizenship concepts into facts on the ground—future legislation that would respect Egyptians’ rights regardless of sex, social class or faith—otherwise ‘citizenship’ would remain a mere beauty point in the Constitution. Many demanded a transparent announcement of the ethnic and religious composition of the population according to the last, recent census. A unified law for places of worship should be issued as well, to eliminate a major legislative inequality among Egyptians.
There was consensus that Egyptian men and women, rich and poor, and Muslims and Copts should all be on equal footing, and the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) should be authorised to guarantee that measures of citizenship are abided by. The NCHR should function independently from the executive, with unlimited prerogatives to interfere and correct flaws. It should be allowed to adopt temporary measures of affirmative action to guarantee equal opportunity—especially regarding appointment to leading posts—and alert and question bodies involved in relevant malpractice.
Article 5 was amended to stipulate that “Citizens have the right to form political parties in accordance with the law. Any political activity or political party shall not be based on religious authority or foundation or on any discrimination on the basis of race or gender”. Participants said the political parties law should be changed and the Committee for Political Parties Affairs cancelled or its prerogatives limited. Freedom to form political parties should be secured; formation of a party should only require a simple notification. The committee should focus solely on monitoring parties’ activities so as to prevent the establishment of parties within a religious frame of reference. Those occupying posts of sovereign nature—first and foremost the President, Prime Minister and People’s Assembly and Shura Council speakers— should abandon party affiliation upon assuming their posts, to guarantee their impartiality.
Article 62 now stipulates that “It is possible for the electoral law to stipulate a system combining individual parliamentary representation and party slate system, in accordance with a proportion to be defined by law. And it is also possible that the law stipulates minimum quota for the representation of women in the two houses of parliament”. The participants required clear, detailed legislation on slate system to guarantee equal opportunity and fair representation for the various sectors of the population. Assigning quotas for less privileged segments, including women, Copts, and young people, on party electoral lists was strongly advocated.
In article 88 “A supreme commission characterised by independence and impartiality will supervise the elections as regulated by law. The commission will take charge of forming the general committees to supervise the elections at the level of voting districts and committees which will supervise polling and vote-counting. The general committees should be formed of members of the judicial authorities in accordance with the rules and measures regulated by law” was widely discussed. The committee, the participants agreed, should be impartial and its members should not be appointed by the executive.
Article 179 was amended to stipulate that: “The State will assume the responsibility of safeguarding security and public order in the face of the dangers of terrorism. Special rules of identification and investigation required for combating such dangers shall be regulated by the law under the supervision of the judiciary and in a way that cannot be hampered by the measures stated in articles 41, 44 and the second paragraph of article 45 of the Constitution. The president of the republic is empowered to refer any terrorist crime to any of the judicial authorities stated in the constitution or the law”. There was consensus that individual dignity and constitutional rights should be strongly secured. Likewise, ‘terrorism’ should be clearly defined, so the security apparatus would not exploit fighting terrorism to hold sway over people’s lives and freedoms. Presidential prerogatives concerning the innovation of judicial systems—justifying the disregard of normal legal measures in emergency cases—should be curtailed.
It is strongly hoped the above would be a step forward in the course of political reform in Egypt.