National Council issues constitutional precepts

On Saturday the National Council (NC), an independent group of academics, experts and activists, issued a proposal for Egypt's main constitutional principles. At the heart of the document, Islam remains the main source of legislation and the military is the protector of national security and the civil state.

Over 5000 individuals attended the Egypt First Conference on 7 May, which preceded the NC's formation. They represented major political groups, with the notable exception of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Setting these principles is important to make sure that the constitution, once it’s set, is safe,” said Tahany al-Gebali, the vice president of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court.

Gebali and 22 other constitutional jurists and legal experts helped frame the document, which talks about the make-up of the state, mechanisms towards ensuring and protecting the civil state, and basic rights.

The document calls for “a modern civil state, a democratic republic that aims to achieve freedom, social justice and human dignity."

Using Islam as the main source of legislation comes with stipulations that the government cannot impose religious decrees on the public.

Non-Muslims would not be bound by Islamic law for personal affairs. “Egypt’s previous Grand Mufti, Fathi Wassil, expressed his agreement with this article,” the document states.

As for the military's role of protecting the civil state, the document stipulates that it would be done in constant consultation with the Supreme Constitutional Court.

The NC hopes to introduce a set of constitutional principles that would limit the power of any individual or group to easily change the constitution. It also seeks a more decentralized system of governance that allows administrative autonomy for governorates.

The article on gender equality calls for national military service to apply to women as well as men.

“There’s a general trend in constitutional jurisprudence now to become more specific with these kinds of documents. We always talk about gender equality, but we added this line to show what we mean,” Gebali said.

Despite the insistence of conference organizer Mamdouh Hamza to the contrary, the document could not escape the debate surrounding whether the constitution should precede the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

“The only way these precepts can be guaranteed is if the constitution is drafted before parliamentary elections,” said Sameh Ashour, former head of the Lawyers Syndicate.

Gabber Nassar, a professor of law at Cairo University, also emphasized the need for drafting the constitution first. “How can you get married without having a marriage contract?” and “How can you play a soccer game without a field and goal posts?” were well-received metaphors for the importance of having a constitution before elections.

If the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces decides to go ahead with elections in September before the new constitution is drawn up, the NC will still work on reaching a consensus on constitutional precepts, according to their media coordinator Hussein Abdel Ghani.

According to Gebali, the next step is publicizing the precepts among a wide audience in order create a solid consensus around them.  “A team of engineers are putting together a system where up to 15 million individuals can participate in giving their opinion on this document,” said Gebali. The team, lead by activist engineer Maged al-Sawy, is supposed to help create a true forum for public discourse, she added.

The document comes amid other attempts to produce documents that determine the constitution's main principles. Gebali believes that the NC document can add to the debate, and create a sense of urgency on the need to finalize such a document. “In South Africa, this process took six years,” she said.

To date Al-Azhar University, the National Association for Change and the National Center for Human Rights, among other organizations, have produced constitution-related documents and proposals.

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