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Islamist-secular struggle over Egypt constitution

By Maggie Michael

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 2 2012 2:16 p.m. MDT

"There is a strong sentiment in the street for implementing Shariah," said Sheik Khaled al-Azhari, a Salafi who sits in the assembly. "Add to that, there is a big difference between talking to people from an air-conditioned office like liberals and between living their lives and knowing their pains."

Al-Azhari, who is also a TV star on a religious channel, said Islamists had one main rule guiding their hand in the constitution: "You can't criminalize what is permitted by Shariah law."

Some parts of the new charter that appear to have consensus so far would set a more democratic system for Egypt, reducing the overwhelming powers that the president has long held and increasing the authorities of parliament.

But a number of articles put forward by Islamists have raised liberals' concerns.

One proposal would establish a powerful political role for Egypt's premier Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, saying the opinion of its top clerics would be "the final or main reference for the state in whatever is related to Shariah law." Some fear that would establish an Iranian-style system where clerics oversee laws passed by parliament. Al-Azhar is generally seen as a moderate body, but conservatives and Salafis have been gaining influence in its ranks.

"Islamists will continue to rule the country through this institution (Al-Azhar) even if they lose elections," the National Front For Justice and Democracy, an independent group monitoring the assembly's deliberations, said in a recent report.

There has been a sharp debate over revising the second article of the previous constitution which says the "principles of Shariah" are the main source of legislation. Many Islamists see that language as too vague and want it changed to "the rulings of Shariah," which they see as providing for a more strict adherence to their interpretation of Islamic law.

In other Islamist-backed articles, women would enjoy equal rights as men as long as they do not "violate Shariah" or "family duties." Islamists also blocked attempts to introduce a clause guaranteeing Egypt's adherence to international treaties it has already joined on ending discrimination against women. They worried that such a clause could be used to ban female genital mutilation or prevent lowering of the marriage age, which they saw are allowed under Shariah. Some Salafi sheiks have called for allowing girls to be married with the onset of puberty.

Another proposed clause would stipulate that Christians and Jews have the right to abide by their "own religious laws" and choose "their religious leadership," a provision that Islamists say protects minorities. Critics say it contradicts the principles of equal citizenship and enshrines a second-class status.

Another article would recognize the right of Christians and Jews to conduct their rituals and build places of worship, but on the condition they do not "violate public order." That could allow lawmakers to maintain restrictions on the building of churches, since church construction has often prompted sectarian strife in the past.

Other clauses are heavy with vague references to preserving the "morals" and "traditions" of Egyptian society, which critics fear could be used to restrict freedoms of speech and political activity.

"This is a disaster," said leftist politician Hussein Abdel-Razek. "The proposed articles reflect the core of political Islam currents like the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis. They are autocratic and repressive at heart."

Nehad Aboul-Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women rights, raised a warning over the rights women won over the years, saying, "We are losing them now."

Manal el-Tibi, a female activist who was in the assembly, resigned last week in protest over the articles concerning women.

"It has become clear that the constitution is being prepared to emphasis the religious state for a certain group to monopolize power," she wrote in her resignation letter.

El-Tibi is a member of Egypt's Nubian ethnic minority and clashed repeatedly with the assembly over her attempts to include protections against racial discrimination. Other members opposed, insisting Egypt does not have multiple races, and a Muslim Brotherhood member Omar Abdel-Hadi accused el-Tibi of having separatist aspirations and seeking foreign intervention in Egypt, a typical accusation leveled by Islamists and pan-Arabists against their rivals.

The assembly has been plagued with troubles from the start. A first version of the assembly was dominated even more heavily by Islamists, prompting a mass walkout by liberals. That assembly was dissolved by a court that ruled parliament had not followed proper standards in forming it. The parliament then formed the new panel.

"A single political faction has monopolized the constitution writing, while the rest of Egypt was excluded from the process," the National Front for Justice and Democracy said.

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