Workers and farmers try their hand at constitution writing

In Shamma, a small village north of Cairo in Monufiya Governorate, about a hundred farmers gathered eagerly last Monday at a local youth center to discuss their dreams for Egypt’s future and what rights they hope the post-revolution constitution will protect, from public services to social security.

The meeting is part of a grassroots initiative called “Workers and Farmers Write the Constitution,” which aims at drafting a bill for social and economic rights to be proposed to Parliament and to the constituent assembly responsible for drafting Egypt’s new constitution.

“The constitution is not only about voting in the referendum at the end, but also about how we can live with dignity,” said Khaled Ali, director of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), addressing the crowd of farmers.

“All that we dream of is a real opportunity for education, for employment, for healthcare. Why we can’t have these three main needs now? Because businessmen used to rule us and put laws in place that serve their interests,” he said.

Ali explained the meaning of the constitution, asking, “Can I write the terms of a contract between you and me and then announce it without you having a say in it? And then you become liable to that contract? The constitution contains your rights and obligations, and that’s why you have to participate in writing it.”

The initiative, which aims to replicate South Africa’s experience in writing its 1955 Freedom Charter, includes 19 labor unions, syndicates and civil society organizations. It was launched by the Federation of Independent Trade Union, Egyptian Farmers Union, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights and the Egyptian Committee for the Protection of Labor Rights on 30 December 2011.

Since then, the organizers have been travelling the country, meeting with farmers, factory workers, craftsmen, fishermen and others, to ask about their problems and demands.

In South Africa, before the people voted on the 1955 Freedom Charter, 50,000 volunteers interviewed the population by asking one simple question: “What is the South Africa that you dream of?” Answers were compiled and sent to elected committees in each district, which were then sent to other committees at the provincial level. The committees put the answers in the form of a list of demands and gave them to constitutional experts who drafted the charter.

“We don’t want to rely on a group of experts to say what the economic and social rights the constitution should state. It’s important after the revolution that we start talking about populating the law making process. The people have to be an integral part in drafting laws, and most importantly the constitution,” Nadeem Mansour, executive manager of ECESR, told Egypt Independent.

According to Egypt’s constitutional declaration, adopted last march by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the newly-elected Parliament is set to form a 100-member constituent assembly that will tasked with drafting the country’s constitution. However, it still remains unclear how exactly the process of consultations with different societal groups will take place.

After the organizers introduced the idea to the farmers, each participant started to talk about problems he faces in his work and daily life, as well as economic and social issues. At the end of each meeting, the participants answered a survey consisting of one question: “Write your dreams and demands, regardless of how simple they are. This country is ours, and it is us who will protect it and we will say how we wish it to be.”

According to Mansour, a group of people sort out these demands and divide them into topics. For example, demands could be categorized as: issues related to healthcare, education, working conditions, pensions, social security, etc. At the end, there will be a technical committee composed of legal and constitutional experts, as well as labor and farmers’ leaders, to phrase the demands technically into a draft bill that will then be approved by the workers and farmers before it is submitted to the constituent assembly, he said.

Mansour added that they will start lobbying MPs, political parties and members of the constituent assembly to endorse the bill as soon as a first draft is ready. However, there is no guarantee that the constituent assembly will approve the bill. 

Yasser Abu Shanab, one of the farmers from Shamma, talked about local problems, including a group of ceramic traders blocking a canal. According to him, they bribe government employees to buy their silence so that they aren’t fined for their violations.

Shanab also complained about expensive pesticides and their effectiveness as well as the monopoly over the market of potato seeds by one man in the country who controls the prices.

Another farmer, Hamdy Tahoun, said that he suffers every day from the bad conditions of the train and unavailability of seats as he commutes to work.

Although these problems may sound very specific to the village, they actually are rampant in the country and have elements that can be included in the economic and social rights’ bill, said Ali.

For example, the train problem falls under the chapter of Provision of Social and Cultural Services in the preliminary document ECESR prepared, in which one article says that “the state provides health services, education, drinking water and sanitation, transportation…etc. in rural areas to ensure they meet the basic needs of citizens.

“If the owners of the constitution don’t participate in its drafting, then it’s useless. We have to be the decision makers because this is our life,” said Nahed Marzouk, a member in the trade union of the Egyptian Fertilizers Company in Suez who attended one of the meetings.

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