Sharia and Beyond

Islamists, Salafists & Liberals Clash Over Bid for More Hardline Egypt Constitution

Talks bog down over contentious issues like sharia law, the power of the presidency, and women’s rights, reports Mike Giglio.

Ahmed Mahmoud / AFP / Getty Images

Dr. Amr Darrag, the man tasked with overseeing Egypt’s chaotic constitutional assembly, jokes that he must have been picked for the post because of his background as an engineer. “People probably thought I would be an organized enough person to handle this,” he says.

Darrag, a professor at Cairo University with a doctorate in soil mechanics from Purdue, was elected to head the assembly in July after its predecessor was dissolved by an Egyptian court this past spring. The process of creating a new constitution after decades of authoritarian rule has become the most contentious issue in the country’s post-Arab Spring political scene, and an emblem of its partisan divides.

From opposite ends of the committee, liberals and hardline Salafists have battled—often clause by clause—over the role that sharia law should play in Egypt’s constitution, pulling in hot-button issues such as blasphemy and women’s rights. Both sides, meanwhile, have leveled accusations against the Muslim Brotherhood for maneuvering below the fray to expand its already substantial power—its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) holds Egypt’s presidency, won nearly half of the Parliament in elections, and has the bulk of the members on the constitutional assembly, including Darrag, who is a senior official with the party.

The assembly has gained a reputation for being rambunctious, as political rivalries play out behind closed doors. “There have been much more than confrontational discussions,” one FJP operative says. “There have almost been full-fledged confrontations.”

Darrag says the assembly is closing in on a consensus over a final draft, and that its divisions have been overblown. (The threat remains, meanwhile, that the liberals might walk out.) But he worries that “political games” have threatened to overshadow the assembly’s work. “People are trying to practice politics with the constitution in the background,” Darrag says. “This is the main difficulty. And we don’t have the luxury of time.”

Egypt must have a new constitution in place before it can elect a lasting new Parliament, after a controversial July court decision dissolved the one that took office earlier this year. And many Egyptians view the document’s completion as a crucial step in moving past the uncertainty and disorder that have plagued the country since its 2011 revolution pushed authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak from power.

But as the committee works to unveil the latest draft as early as this week, with a deadline for the final version looming on Dec. 12, it remains burdened by bitter disagreements, largely on religious grounds. “The relationship has been tense between us for a while,” says Ahmed Maher, the cofounder of the April 6 youth movement, and the assembly’s highest-profile member from the revolutionary movement. “Everyone in the committee sees that the Salafists are only saying ‘Sharia, sharia, sharia.’ We’re trying to reach a middle ground, and up till now we haven’t reached anything.”

The first drafts of the constitution, which have been circulated to the public in recent weeks, show a heavy emphasis on sharia law—the second article says “the principles of the Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation,” while another, which has been seized upon by liberals and the press, holds that women’s rights and sharia law cannot conflict. Many liberals say they can’t support the document. Some Salafists, meanwhile, have said it doesn’t go far enough.

“A big challenge we are facing at the moment is miscommunication and lack of trust. Liberals are worried that well-organized Islamic parties push for a more conservative Egypt, and Islamists had been warning Egyptians about the liberal agenda of westernizing Egypt,” says Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who ran the Facebook page that led the 2011 uprising’s calls to protest. “Meanwhile, people in the streets are more concerned about the bad economic conditions. Almost one out of every two Egyptians lives on under two dollars a day, one out of every three Egyptians can’t read and write, and one third of the youth is unemployed.”

For some Egyptians, these tensions are seeping into regular life. Dalia Ziada, a human-rights advocate who favors jeans and a headscarf, is a well-known voice from Cairo’s liberal activist crowd. When she took a recent drive through the city’s congested streets and was interrupted by a man who scolded her for listening to music—“Aren’t you a Muslim?” he asked—she saw more than just an overbearing stranger. It was another sign, she thought, that real changes in Egypt are underway. “We are on our way to becoming a theocracy,” she says.

The constitution’s religious focus is expected to remain in the final version to be put forward next month. But it’s still unclear what tangible changes Egyptian women will see from the language on sharia law—there have been debates over whether the legal marriage age will be lowered from 18, for example, an idea pushed by Salafists who cite the example set by Aisha, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, whom scholars believe was between 6 and 14 when she wed.

Ziada worries that the new constitution will, above all, empower those who want to use religion to keep their fellow Egyptians in line. “They speak about women’s rights in a nice way. Yeah, we will respect women, blah, blah, blah, blah. But—only if it does not contradict sharia. Come on. Women’s rights and sharia cannot go together,” she says. “This opens the door for any sheikh, or anyone else, who thinks he’s more religious than you to tell you how to behave. Because he thinks that you should not contradict sharia. And the constitution is on his side.”

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Bahey eldin Hassan, the veteran advocate who heads the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), notes that the constitution used under Mubarak also stipulated that the country’s law would be based on the principles of sharia. But legal scholars say the language of the old constitution was left purposefully vague. The new draft, however, specifies that sharia is based on specific Sunni doctrines and texts, and for the first time outlines a role for Egypt’s top religious scholars at Al-Azhar University in Cairo to consult on the translation of sharia into law.

This new definition worries people like Hassan, who say the interpretation of sharia’s principles could narrow. “We have not only sharia law in the same quality as before in the constitution, but also, for the first time, it refers to specific Islamic beliefs,” he says. “It’s not only on the religious articles. It also has serious implications on every other article in the constitution—everything should be interpreted in the framework of sharia law.”

The draft constitution does note that not every citizen has to abide by sharia law—Christians and Jews will be governed by the dictates of their own churches and temples. But critics argue that the general move is still toward state-sanctioned religions, and that the draft’s recognition of only “Abrahamic faiths” will leave groups like the country’s Baha’i minority—which has existed in Egypt for more than a century—out in the cold. Even many Coptic Christians, who make up 10 percent of the population, worry that the constitution will effectively make them second-class citizens—and some argue that they have no interest in seeing their own church doctrine made into law.

The new constitution also is likely to include an explicit article that outlaws “insulting or exposing” any of the Abrahamic prophets. A version of this law already exists in Egypt, but free-speech advocates worry it will be harder to defend against so-called blasphemy—and that the charge will be leveled more often—once it is enshrined in constitutional law.

It’s these sorts of issues that have liberal members of the constitutional committee insisting that the fight with their Islamist colleagues is not over yet. “It’s not good,” says Omar Semada, one of the constitutional assembly’s liberal members. “If we let them include their ideology everywhere, we’d wake up to a country where, when you go to a government office, you see a room for men and a room for women. And what’s next? A sidewalk for men and a sidewalk for women?”

Nonsense, says Nader Bakkar, the young and dynamic chief spokesman for al-Nour, the main political bloc for the Salafist movement that has become a powerful force on Egypt’s political scene—and that has been a key driver behind the constitutional draft’s overtly religious bent.

Bakkar dismisses liberal criticism—as well as much of the coverage in the international press—that deems the document too aggressively religious, calling it hyperbolic, and saying it is out of touch with the realities of Egypt today. The bulk of Egyptian society is religiously conservative, he points out, maintaining that public opinion is on the Salafists’ side. “Some of our liberal colleagues talk about complete equality between men and women. I tell them it’s perfectly fine to hold a conference in the street and tell people your views,” he says. “They have to talk to the Egyptian people and try to convince them of their point of view.”

Bakkar defends the Salafist position on the marriage age by saying younger women shouldn’t be forbidden to marry when it’s not illegal for them to have sex—and he says it would protect women in conservative areas from having intercourse out of wedlock because they can’t legally marry. He says any changes in the law should focus on the girl’s consent and should penalize families and husbands for marrying off girls against their will.

Other issues—such as the sharia-based stipulation that Egypt’s president could only be a man—he dismisses as largely Western concerns. He adds that while the new constitution would effectively ban a woman from becoming president, the rule would hardly make Egypt a singularity, in practice at least, among modern nations. He points out that the United States and some other Western countries have never had a female president (although they have no ban of any kind against a woman head of government, and current German Chancellor Angela Merkel is considered one of the most powerful women in the world) because, he says, having a female ruler is an unnatural state of affairs. “Look at Margaret Thatcher,” Bakkar says. “When she became prime minister she called herself the ‘Iron Woman’—because, in our point of view, she insisted on contradicting her own nature as a woman.”

Analysts say the majority of the Egyptian people are likely to vote for the new constitution, despite the current uproar. “It’s obviously not the most liberal document,” says Shadi Hamid, the director of research of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “But I think at the same time, the constitutional assembly is dominated by Islamists, and Egypt is not the most liberal society.”

“The fundamental question,” Hamid adds, “is the tension in Egypt between liberalism and democracy. They don’t necessarily go hand in hand.”

The Muslim Brotherhood has portrayed itself as the grown-up in the room. Long ostracized as an extremist group under Mubarak’s rule, it has become the dominant force in Egyptian politics, and now enjoys good diplomatic relations with even its erstwhile enemy, the United States. Gehad el-Haddad, a senior FJP adviser, says it has been working to bridge the Salafist-liberal divide. “Salafists have in fact been the prime antagonists in passing many of the clauses by insisting on adding their own attachments to the texts,” he says. “The more they get their way, the more we lose liberal support.”

Haddad says this back-and-forth is the reason behind some of the awkward language that has been seized on by the press—such as the women’s clause. Such additions are not really necessary, he says, because the constitution’s second article already makes it clear that the entire document, as in the last constitution, is subject to sharia. “I don’t think it’s controversial,” he says. “It’s the second clause in the constitution. And the whole constitution and the entire country are subject to that clause.”

As for the new directives on how to interpret sharia—that it is based on Sunni orthodox legal and theological reasoning—Haddad says it should not be a cause for concern, and that interpretation of the statement is open to the same latitude as before. “It’s still the values, and the intent, of freedom and dignity,” he says.

The Brotherhood, however, has itself come under fire for allegedly pushing through clauses to make the presidency—now held by the group’s Mohamed Morsi—more powerful than many people expected it to be. While the drafting committee is preoccupied with arguing over the sharia issue, says committee member Semada, “they—the Brotherhood—play with the authorities of the president, and support that he would control every pillar of the country.”

Adds Salafist spokesman Bakkar: “It gives the president much more power than what the Egyptian people were dreaming about after the revolution.”

While the new constitution remedies some of the powers abused by Mubarak, like the lack of term limits—which now restrict the head of state to two four-year terms—the presidency would retain broad powers, according to the latest draft. Among those powers, one would allow the president to unilaterally appoint a prime minister, and if Parliament does not approve his choice within 120 days, the body would face the threat of dissolution. The president also would have broad powers of appointment, including heads of bodies that are supposed to act as a check on the executive branch.

“He has the power to dissolve the Parliament, he has the ability to appoint senior military and diplomats, and has the power to appoint the judges of the constitutional court,” says Hassan of the CIHRS. “I’m afraid to say that by this constitution Egypt is producing once again a similar style to the Mubarak system, but with a religious lean.”

Morsi may be feeling pressure to see the constitution completed on time—if it misses the Dec. 12 deadline, a new assembly will have to start from scratch. He has convened a series of meetings in recent days with youth activists and his old presidential rivals in an effort to bridge the divide. One source who has been watching the constitutional process up close notes the potential political fallout ahead of new parliamentary elections expected by the end of the year: “The Muslim Brotherhood are the people in power, and if things keep getting worse, people are going to blame them.”

Darrag, the FJP official and head of the constitutional assembly, says the choice to strengthen the presidency was one born of necessity. “In the beginning we actually were in favor of the parliamentary system, and that was the preference of most Egyptians, because we had in mind the long history of dictators and pharaohs,” he says. “Over time, we realized that we needed to have powerful political parties in order to have a good parliamentary system, and all the political parties right now are weak and new.”

Considering Egypt’s long history under a strong centralized ruler, he adds, “the Egyptian people are used to a powerful presidency and they are not ready to absorb a parliamentary system yet. Hopefully, as time passes, we will regressively change to a parliamentary one.”

But many of the liberal and secular activists who sparked the 2011 revolt say they’re gearing up for another fight. “They want to keep the same tools of the Mubarak regime but use it for themselves,” says Zyad al-Alaimy, one of the country’s prominent new liberal politicians. “We will work against it just like we worked against Mubarak’s regime.”

With Hassan el-Naggar in Cairo