Battles in the street as Egypt assembly approves proposed new constitution

McClatchy Foreign StaffDecember 1, 2013 

— Egypt’s Constituent Assembly on Sunday approved a new constitution that calls for more rights and freedoms even as the reality of an increasingly police-like state played out in the streets.

Protesters angered by the police killing of a student on a university campus last week took to Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square to demonstrate and were met by security forces who fired tear gas to disperse the crowd then moved military tanks into position to close off access to the square.

Meanwhile, the government announced that it would hold for another 15 days Alaa Abdel Fatah, a blogger who was instrumental in organizing anti-government protests in 2011. Fatah was detained Friday after police raided his home.

All the while, the Constituent Assembly’s 48 members sat in a chamber and listened as the 247-article constitution was read aloud.

The new document promises freedom of religion, women’s rights and bans human trafficking and the sex trade. But it also would enshrine the role of the country’s strongman, Gen. Abdel Fatah el Sissi, as defense minister for the next eight years, forbidding his dismissal by anyone other than the country’s top military command.

The constitution also would prohibit religion-based political parties – a step that would make illegal any Muslim Brotherhood-based political group such as the now-dissolved Freedom and Justice Party, under whose banner deposed President Mohammed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected leader. It would, however, allow members of former President Hosni Mubarak’s government, who were banned from office after Mubarak resigned in 2011, once again to run.

The approval of the new constitution – it still must be approved by voters in a referendum – at the same time that security forces were battling demonstrators in the streets underscored the bifurcated state of Egyptian politics. The military-named government, seated after Morsi’s July ouster, has presented itself as defenders of the 2011 uprising though the proposed constitution. But on the streets, the government has increasingly suppressed individual freedoms.

That’s made the vaguely worded constitution something of a side issue, say democracy advocates.

“You won’t find anyone here concerned or paying attention to the constitution,” said Ali Hassan, 22, a member of the engineering students union at Cairo University who was among hundreds who refused to attend classes because of the death Thursday of one their fellow students during an on-campus anti-government rally.

"We are fighting for the rights of our colleagues killed, injured and detained," Hassan said, vowing not to return to class until students who’d been arrested were released.

Egypt it seems is stuck between a government committed to reinstating old practices and an opposition that cannot move its cause beyond protests.

In the last month, the government has allowed police to enter university campuses at anytime to disrupt anti-government demonstrations. Interim President Adly Mansour enacted a controversial protest law, banning anyone from protesting without government permission. Two days later, roughly 200 protesters were arrested, including top opposition leaders.

“You have to stop revolting,” Mansour said Saturday in a call to a talk show on Tahrir, a private television station. “We can’t continue revolting forever.”

Last month, the government sentenced 21 young women, including teenagers, to 11 years in prison for peacefully demonstrating on behalf of Morsi.

In response, opposition groups have increased their protests around the country.

Against this backdrop, Amr Moussa, a former secretary general of the Arab League and the head of the Constituent Assembly, said the new constitution promised “real rights,” and an improvement from the constitution passed during Morsi’s one-year tenure.

But the document instead appears to give more power to the president and allows for civilians to be tried in military courts.

Under the proposed charter, the president can draft a law himself or object to a law proposed by the legislature. Many of the articles leave to the legislature the definition of their terms.

If parliament rejects the president’s prime minster and cabinet choices, the majority party or coalition in the legislature may nominate its own candidates. But if those are not approved, Parliament will be considered dissolved and the president can call for new elections.

The constitution would allow military trials for civilians in instances of “crimes that directly assault the camps or military installations, military places, borders, equipment or vehicles, weapons, ammunition, documents or secrets of the military, military factories, direct assaults on its officers and members.” The government continues to have no say over the military budget.

The document explicitly protects Gen. el-Sissi from dismissal for the next two presidential terms. Article 234 says the minister of defense cannot be dismissed without the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The article would remain in effect for eight years after the constitution passes, ensuring that el-Sissi, who engineered the coup that ousted Morsi, will remain one of the country’s most powerful official, even if he doesn’t run for the presidency next year, something many people here are urging him to do.

The constitution also would appear to leave open the likelihood that there will be no reins on the government’s current campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which has seen thousands of Morsi supporters detained under the military’s “war on terrorism.” The constitution says that “the state is committed to confront terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and track sources of its funding as it is a threat to the homeland and citizens while ensuring the rights and public freedoms.”

“This is what we see unfolding: an attempt to protect the regime from the democratic spell that is coming its way – one way or the other,” Hossam Bahgat, prominent human rights activist and lawyer told Al Ahram online, the English version of the main state owned newspaper.

Under Morsi, many Egyptians criticized the rushed, secretive constitutional process. But the current drafting process was, if anything, even less transparent. The members of Constituent Assembly were appointed to their positions by the interim president who himself was appointed by the military. They deliberated in secret until they began voting on the proposed document Saturday.

Still, members of the assembly have defended the process as democratic.

“The legitimacy of this assembly and the president were all garnered from the revolution, which is stronger than any elected regime,” Kamal Hilbawy told McClatchy in September.

Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: nyoussef@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @nancyayoussef, @aminaismail

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