CAIRO, Egypt — The 50 members of Egypt’s committee to draft a new constitution are an assortment of pro-military officials, Islamic representatives, and those that consider themselves independent, like Nasser Amin, a human rights lawyer.
Over the last two months they have met for 10-12 hours each day to hammer out a constitution that they hope walks a fine line between the constitution established by the Islamists that won control of the government in 2012, and the constitution hoped for by the military, which is currently enjoying a huge boost in popularity.
Amin says the atmosphere during the meetings is tense, giving the first public insight into the convoluted negotiations due to end this weekend, before the constitution’s presentation to the public next Saturday. He gives an example: Amin thought he would protect the rights of children by proposing an article that defined a child as under 18.
The response was unexpected: “Everyone started shouting, everyone disagreed. It seems like a simple thing, but it is not.”
Both the military and the Islamist groups who currently sit on Egypt’s constitution drafting committee wanted a child’s age set at 16 — the Islamists because they believe women should be able to marry at 16, and the army because they believe they should be able to arrest those participating in illegal activities from age 16.
“I yelled at them, ‘One of you wants to marry them and the other wants to kill them but both are still children,’” Amin said. “I was not surprised when both the Muslim Brotherhood and the army objected. It is surprising, yes, that they both object together, but for different reasons — so often.”
This week, the committee will undertake a final vote on the more than 200 articles that they want to include in the constitution, and by Saturday, Nov. 30, they will present it to public. The result could be a constitution that makes no one happy in the end.
Egyptian radio stations have already begun to air public service messages warning listeners that the constitution “won’t be the best that the country has had.”
“Regardless of whether you approve or disapprove of the new charter, you must vote in the popular referendum on the constitution,” argues the ad. “This will send a message to the world that Egyptians are united.”
Amin said it would be a “disaster” if the new Egyptian constitution, drafted by a committee designed to represent all Egyptians, got less than the 63% approval rating the one drafted under the Muslim Brotherhood got in 2012.
Egyptian activists and politicians said they were waiting to see the final version before passing judgment, though some were hopeful. “My experience with the ruling systems in this country make me never trust anything before the draft is totally finished and published, since they usually change every thing in the last three days,” said Mohamed Naem, an activist in the Social Democratic Party. “But generally I can say that until now the constitution is OK except of course the articles related to the army.”
Those articles include Article 171, which states that for the next eight years, the defense minister is to be appointed by the president from the ranks of the armed forces, with his choice subject to the military council’s approval. Another is article 174, which bans military trials for civilians “except in cases which represent a direct assault on armed forces.”
“I think the army position has become stronger in the new constitution,” said Tamer Wagih, a representative from the Egyptian Initiative for personal rights. “In one way or another you can feel that everyone is trying to take his share and protect his group’s interests. ”
Amin conceded that the constitutional committee was often battling the interests of the army, and of the Islamists, and that representatives of both groups threatened to walk away from the process “almost daily.”
“We know that the army will try to keep the control they currently have and the Islamists will try to keep Sharia law,” said Amin. “We have to do neither.”
He acknowledged, however, that there had been failings.
After a long battle in his committee to try and establish the right of Egyptians to practice any religion of their choosing, language was agreed upon that stated: “Egyptians have the right to believe what they want.”
“A new section was added which said, Egyptians have the right to believe but not to practice a religion other than Judaism, Christianity or Islam,” said Amin, in what he called a “scheme”by religious members of the constitution committee to exclude minority groups like the Baha’I, Hindus and others. “So Egyptians can believe what they want but if they want to open a religious place or something they need to get approval from the law — and that will never pass.”
The constitution also fails to establish guidelines for Egypt’s next elections, or define if the parliament will be divided into political groups or individual candidates — an issue that in the past has affected the ability of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to run as a party slate or independents.
“We could not agree on these issues, so we decided that there should be a separate committee which votes and establishes these things,” he said.
It’s not ideal, he said, but Egypt needs to start moving forward.
“For us, it is not an easy thing to start and try to balance the [ruling] powers in Egypt,” he said. “But we must begin to do this.”