New constitutions take shape
IF A camel is a horse designed by committee, it is not surprising that the constitutions being drafted in Egypt and Tunisia look like curious beasts. Rows have raged over who gets to sit on the drafting committees. The members must bridge classic differences between left and right, and betwixt advocates of parliamentary and presidential systems. And the religious parties that dominate the constituent assemblies in both countries must also square the long-vexed question of relations between Islam and the state, down to whether foreign tourists may still frolic on local beaches.
Since their revolutions almost two years ago the two countries have followed divergent paths. Tunisia’s was the more practical. It held elections a year ago to pick a 217-person temporary parliament. One of its tasks is to devise a constitution. Egypt’s course has been messier. The junta of generals who assumed temporary power charged the parliament, elected last December with a 75% majority of Islamists, with choosing a constitution-drafting board. But courts disputed its first choice of members and then, shortly before presidential elections in June that ended the generals’ tenure, dissolved the parliament too. Just before being disbanded, the parliament selected a different 100-person constituent assembly. The composition of this body, which is heavily weighted towards Islamists, has also been challenged in court, but it carries on in legal limbo.
Oddly enough, however, the two countries have reached a similar point, with their constitution-writing bodies both recently issuing first drafts of their work. In both countries, too, the drafts have stirred a storm of controversy. Secularists have accused the drafters of trimming civic freedoms in the name of religious orthodoxy, while Salafist conservatives have cried foul over what they see as attempts to water down the role of religion, and particularly of Islamic law, or sharia.
Tunisia’s constitutional rumpus has, predictably, been calmer than Egypt’s. The country is small and socially more homogenous, with a strong secular tradition and a more cohesive educated class. Attacks from the Salafist right, despite the shrillness of their tone, have had little impact. The religious radicals are relatively isolated, while Nahda, the more mainstream Islamist party, which won some 40% of assembly seats, has proved flexible in accommodating secular-minded demands. Its leader, Raschid Ghannouchi, recently told Salafist leaders in private that Tunisia’s Islamic character could best be ensured by empowering righteous Muslims through elections and government appointments.
As a result, Tunisia’s draft constitution says nothing about sharia or blasphemy, and relegates questions of religious values to a wordy preamble. Responding to loud protests by feminists and journalists, the drafters have agreed to rewrite provisions that could limit sexual equality and press freedom. In the next few weeks the constitutional draft will be opened to general debate in the assembly. It is scheduled to be ratified in February, well in advance of elections for a full-term regular parliament in June.
Egypt had hopes for a tighter schedule, with a referendum on its constitution before the end of this year, followed by parliamentary elections two months later. This looks increasingly unlikely. Secularists and minority groups, who continue to contest the very composition of the constituent assembly, bitterly oppose much of the current draft. Clauses that speak of freedoms, they say, are undermined by others which would punish vaguely defined forms of blasphemy and which stipulate that no laws should contradict sharia, even though many interpretations of Islamic law could discriminate against women and non-Muslims. Religious conservatives have been just as scathing.
Yet while Egypt’s Salafists and secularists, each of whom won a quarter of parliamentary seats, clash over such issues as sharia, they unite in suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to use the constitution to consolidate its control (it captured nearly half the parliamentary vote and its candidate, Muhammad Morsi, won Egypt’s presidency). This, they charge, is why the draft preserves much of the administrative structure, assigns presidents majestic powers, and safeguards the military, which the Brotherhood seeks to woo, from systematic civilian oversight. With such muddled and competing demands, a camel would be a good outcome.