Egyptians started voting early Saturday morning on a constitution draft, which is made up of an introduction, an 11-part preamble and 236 articles.
The constitution put to vote on Saturday was drafted by a 100-member Constituent Assembly. About 25 million voters are expected to vote in Saturday’s referendum in ten different provinces.
The Assembly was challenged earlier for the mechanism of selecting its members, which resulted in dissolving the first Islamist-dominated panel in April and forming a new one.
The newly formed Islamist-dominated assembly was boycotted by liberals and Christians.
The constitution is to replace a 1971 charter suspended by the military, which took power when Mubarak was ousted in February last year.
The draft raised concerns over issues including Islamic law and women’s rights and was the center of disputes between Islamists and the opposition over the past weeks.
Egyptians are divided over some of the articles included within the constitution:
Shariah (Islamic) law
Like a previous constitution, the draft states, “Principles of Islamic Shariah are the principal source of legislation.” The draft adds, “The principles of Islamic Sharia include general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence, and credible sources…” which critics say opens the door for legislation allowing imposition of strict Islamic law. Countering that is a vague article that reads, “Freedom of belief is an inviolable right. . The State shall guarantee the freedom to practice religious rites and to establish places of worship for the divine religions, as regulated by law.”
Role of clerics
The draft gives Islamic clerics unprecedented powers in this article: “Al-Azhar Senior Scholars are to be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law,” referring to the most respected center of scholarship and rulings in Sunni Islam.
The draft mentions women in the framework of the traditional Muslim family, adding, “The state shall ensure maternal and child health services free of charge, and enable the reconciliation between the duties of a woman toward her family and her work.” Critics charge the draft fails to protect women from discrimination, but the preamble states, “Equality and equal opportunities are established for all citizens, men and women, without discrimination or nepotism or preferential treatment, in both rights and duties.”
The draft contains language referring to public morals and values, implying that Islamic law would be the determining factor. An article forbids limiting the basic rights of individuals but adds that they “must be practiced in a manner not conflicting with” principles of religious law. There is also a ban on insulting “religious messengers and prophets,” opening the door to arrests of bloggers and other activists.
Independent publications closed for a day to protest the lack of an article banning arrest of journalists for what they write. The draft has this: “Freedom of the press, printing, publication and mass media shall be guaranteed. The media shall be free and independent…”
The draft guarantees the practices of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, raising concerns of persecution of smaller sects. It also allows religious practices on condition that they do not “violate public order.”
The president is the head of the national security council, but the defense minister is the commander in chief of the armed forces and “appointed from among its officers.” That ensures the military an independent position. Control of the military budget is not mentioned.