Egypt’s winding path toward a new constitution
Courtesy: Official Facebook page, Armed Forces spokesperson

Since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians have witnessed the formation of three constitutional assemblies and have been called on to vote on two draft constitutions (as well as voting in parliamentary and presidential elections). What follows is a partial timeline of the country’s faltering progress toward a new constitution.

February 11, 2011

Upon Mubarak’s ouster, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) suspends the 1971 Constitution.

March 18, 2011

Seventy-seven percent of the 44 percent of registered voters approve nine amendments to the suspended constitution in a national referendum. They also approve a roadmap for the transition that includes the formation of a constituent assembly, and parliamentary and presidential elections.

The military and Islamists encourage a “yes” vote, arguing that it will ensure stability and protect the country’s Islamic identity. Revolutionary and secular groups urge a “no” vote, arguing that the country should write a constitution before proceeding to elections.

March 30, 2011

SCAF issues a 63-article provisional constitution, under which it assumes legislative and executive powers. The constitution includes articles that were not included in the document voters approved on March 18. The wording of one of the articles was altered so that it becomes unclear whether presidential or parliamentary elections must take place first.

The ambiguities in the March 30 Constitutional Declaration regarding the timetable of the transition and the criteria for selecting a constituent assembly will lead to endless debates and divisions.

June 20, 2011

Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb publishes the so-called Azhar Document, which calls for the establishment of “a constitutional, democratic, and modern nation-state.” The document sets out to reconcile Islamic Sharia with human and civil rights and democratic principles, and to bridge the widening divide between Islamists and secular parties.

Most political forces express their approval, including the Muslim Brotherhood — however, the group does not sign to the document in any binding way. More conservative Islamists and Salafis insist that the document does not allow for the full implementation of Sharia.

June 26, 2011

Mohamed ElBaradei shares a Bill of Principles and Basic Rights that he hopes can build consensus. It limits the role and prerogatives of the military, reaffirms basic rights and freedoms and maintains Sharia as “the main source of legislation.” The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists insist that only the future parliament (in which they rightly expect to be a majority) can decide these matters.

Earlier in June, Egyptian NGOs call on SCAF to follow the Tunisian model and prioritize writing a new constitution — proceeding to elections without one is “putting the cart before the horse,” they say.

November 15, 2011

Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmy proposes a “supra-constitutional document” that defines Egypt as “a civil state,” specifies mechanisms for selecting the constituent assembly and gives the military protection from civilian oversight. The document is abandoned after large Islamist-led protests in Tahrir Square.

December 2011-January 2012

Parliamentary elections return a People’s Assembly with an Islamist majority. The Muslim Brotherhood wins 43 percent of seats.

March 16, 2012

The first Constituent Assembly is formed. Half of its members are Islamist MPs. Non-Islamist parties complain the Muslim Brotherhood is high-handed, breaks promises and has stacked the assembly with its own MPs and other Islamists. The Brotherhood accuses non-Islamist parties of wanting to have an undue influence they have not earned at the polls. Women, minorities and the young are under-represented — a recurring problem that will affect all subsequent assemblies. Just over 70 of the assembly’s 100 members are in attendance on its first meeting, and more resign the following day. Representatives of Al-Azhar, the Coptic Church and the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) also withdraw.

April 10, 2012

A lawsuit brought by secular activists leads an administrative court to invalidate the Constituent Assembly on grounds that members of Parliament should not have elected themselves, and that it was not sufficiently representative. Islamists and secular parties begin a round of new negotiations — partly brokered by SCAF — on the composition of a new assembly, even as the country proceeds towards presidential elections.

May 25, 2012

The first round of the presidential elections ends with a run-off between the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, former aviation minister and the last prime minister to serve under Mubarak.

June 12, 2012

The Parliament elects a new Constituent Assembly. Non-Islamists accuse the Muslim Brotherhood once again of not honoring its promises, which was to establish an assembly that was half Islamist. Fifty-seven MPs from non-Islamist parties walk out in protest.

June 14, 2012

In a controversial ruling, the SCC finds that the electoral law under which the Islamist-dominated Parliament had been voted in is unconstitutional, and dissolves Parliament. The legal standing of the assembly is now in doubt as well.

June 15, 2012

On the night that polling ends in the second round, SCAF issues an addendum to the March 30 Constitutional Declaration. It limits the president’s authority over the military and gives SCAF legislative powers in the absence of a parliament. It also stipulates that SCAF can appoint a new constituent assembly if the current one is unable to perform its duties and that the president, the prime minister, the head of SCAF, the Supreme Judicial Council or a fifth of the assembly’s members can appeal any article in a draft constitution that conflicts with the revolution’s goals, or with principles agreed up on in all of Egypt’s former constitutions. Islamists decry “a constitutional coup.”

June 24, 2012

Morsi wins the presidential election with 51.73 percent of the vote. Once in office, he tries to re-instate the People’s Assembly by legal decree, but the court refuses to reverse its rulings.

August 12, 2012

Morsi asks several senior generals to resign and names General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi as the country’s new defense minister. He issues a constitutional declaration of his own, claiming many of the powers the generals had given themselves for the presidency. Morsi assumes legislative powers, as well as the authority to select a new constituent assembly if the current one — which is facing various legal challenges — cannot finish its work.

September 24, 2012

In a public resignation letter, Nubian rights activist Manal al-Tiby writes that she is leaving the assembly because she realized “the constitution was being prepared to serve one particular group,” and that “the process would create a constitution that would maintain the same primary foundations of the regime that the revolution had risen up to overthrow, while only changing the personnel.”

October-November 2012

Concern and criticism over the draft constitution grows in non-Islamist circles. Articles stipulating equality between men and women based on the principles of Sharia, and giving Al-Azhar scholars an advisory role in vetting legislation, are of particular concern. Figures such as Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabbahi call for a boycott of the Constituent Assembly. Non-Islamist representatives begin dropping out, including representatives of the Coptic Church, April 6 Youth Movement leader Ahmad Maher, Amr Moussa, Hamdy Qandil and others.

November 22, 2012

Morsi issues a constitutional declaration that protects the Constituent Assembly from dissolution and makes the president’s own decisions immune to legal challenge. The controversy over the constitution and the sweeping powers Morsi bestows on himself to push it through triggers the first massive protests against his presidency, which last for several days outside the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace in Heliopolis and lead to violent clashes between protesters and Morsi supporters.

November 28-29, 2012

Under these circumstances, the overwhelmingly Islamist assembly — from which Christian representatives and those of secular parties have almost all withdrawn — approves the constitutional draft in a 17-hour marathon session. Islamists jokingly make representative Abdel-Moneim al-Sawy the Coptic Church’s stand-in.

December 15 -22, 2012

A deeply divided country votes on the Islamist-backed charter. Turn-out is just under 33 percent of registered voters. The Constitution is approved by 64 percent of voters, although it is rejected by a majority of voters in the Cairo, Gharbiya and Monufiya districts and there are significant “no” votes in cities such Alexandria — 44.4 percent — and Port Said — 49 percent. Non-Islamist parties denounce the vote as rigged. The Muslim Brotherhood calls the newly ratified Constitution “a historic opportunity to unify all political entities.”

July 3, 2013

Six months later, the Islamist-drafted Constitution is suspended when the military removes President Mohamed Morsi from power and arrests him, following mass street protests across the country calling for his resignation.

July 8, 2013

Interim president Adly Mansour — the former head of the Supreme Constitutional Court — issues a constitutional declaration that gives him the authority to form a committee of legal experts tasked with proposing amendments to the suspended 2012 Constitution. He will then appoint a 50-member constitutional committee that, within 60 days, will discuss and approve the amendments.

December 2, 2013

The committee of 50, which includes no members of the Muslim Brotherhood and only two Islamists, completes its work and submits the new constitutional draft to Mansour. The Muslim Brotherhood calls the new constitution “a victory for Christians and the secular allies.” Sisi calls it “a step on the way to Egypt’s future.”

“If you love General Sisi, and you want him to run [for the presidency], then you must participate in the referendum and vote ‘yes,’” Tamarod activist group leader Mahmoud Badr says at a pro-constitution rally. Egyptians receive text messages in the weeks leading up to the referendum urging them to vote “yes.” 

Ursula Lindsey 

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