Egypt: Morsi considering postponement of vote on Constitution, says human rights group

By Rebecca Lowe and Emily Silvester

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Violent clashes between protesters in Cairo have prompted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi to consider delaying a controversial vote on the new Constitution, according to a leading human rights activist.

Mohamed Morsi

The president may be planning to postpone the referendum, due to take place on 15 December, in an attempt to dampen hostilities between supporters and opponents of the draft Constitution, says Mohamed Rady, executive director of the Arab Organisation of Human Rights.

‘We have heard from many people that he is about to make a statement and may be announcing a postponement,’ Rady tells IBA Global Insight. ‘We’ve heard he may postpone the election to avoid further riots in the streets. Today many people have said they plan to march to the presidential palace and there may be a big fight between the two sides. If that happens, many people may die.’

Thousands of Morsi’s opponents and supporters today took to the streets in mass rallies, some of which turned violent. Before dawn this morning, masked assailants set upon opposition protesters who have staged a three-week sit-in at Tahrir Square, armed with guns and firebombs. At least 11 protesters were wounded, according to the health ministry.


 

  ‘There is total polarisation between the Islamists and other forces [...] The Islamists are heading for a theocratic state'

Bahey Eldin Hassan
Director, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

The draft Constitution, written by a 100-member assembly dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, has polarised the country. Secular and liberal opposition voices say it undermines personal freedoms and excludes large swathes of the population by enshrining the ‘foundational rules’ of sharia law as the main source of legislation. Supporters claim human rights and religion are protected and are being used by the opposition as political tools.

Criticism of Morsi, a long-time member of the Muslim Brotherhood, hardened last month after he issued a presidential decree giving him immunity from judicial challenge until a new Constitution is passed. He overturned the declaration on 8 December following widespread protests, but failed to placate the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) who want the referendum delayed and a new, more ‘representative' Constitutional Assembly formed.

 Mohamed ElBaradei

Mohamed ElBaradei

In a statement on 9 December, NSF spokesman Sameh Ashour, head of the Lawyers Syndicate, warned that organising the referendum ‘in a state of seething and chaos’ amounted to a ‘reckless and flagrant absence of responsibility, risking driving the country into violent confrontations that endanger its national security’.

NSF leader Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel-prize winner and former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said yesterday that the group had not yet decided if it would call for a boycott of the 15 December referendum or call for a 'no' vote.

If the referendum goes ahead, Rady says he fears people won’t know what they are voting for. ‘Many people will say yes, many people will say no. But many people in Egypt cannot read or write and they will just see the part about Islam and vote for that.’

Egypt’s leading judges are also reportedly proving reluctant to oversee the vote, which could force a delay. A vote this afternoon has revealed that almost 90 per cent of members of Egypt’s Judges Club – the country’s leading association of judges– are against participation, according to Bahey Eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

Hassan ‘completely rejects’ the proposed Constitution and is a strong critic of the Brotherhood. ‘There is total polarisation between the Islamists and other forces,’ he says. ‘The Islamists are heading for a theocratic state. At first they hid their face by supporting the revolution, but now they have revealed their true colours.’

Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni

Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni

UN war crimes expert Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for his work in international criminal law, is also suspicious of the Brotherhood’s true intentions. ‘The Brotherhood are working hard to take over the country,’ he says. ‘They are resilient and know how to play the game of politics. The Constitution is drafted in a way that gives them all the powers they need to change the country into a theocracy.’ He adds: ‘It was always going to happen. It is just a question of timing and how it is going to be executed.’

Morsi’s decree was designed to prevent Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court from dissolving the assembly for a second time and stopping the Constitution going to referendum. The president claimed the move was necessary to end deadlock and uncertainty, while critics declared it was an unwarranted abuse of power. Many in Egypt believe the Court is far from independent, having helped deposed president Hosni Mubarak consolidate his rule for the past three decades.

The Court, due to rule on the legitimacy of the Constitutional Assembly, adjourned indefinitely last week after claiming that pro-Morsi protesters outside its chambers prevented it from sitting. It is as yet unclear whether it will attempt to reconvene before the referendum.

Sabah al-Mukhtar, president of the London-based Arab Lawyers Association and bureau member of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, believes current clashes are politically motivated. Most average Egyptians are not interested in the conflict, he stresses. ‘These protests are being led by the liberals, the leftists, the communists, the Nasserists. These political movements were under the impression that they could carry the street and they are extremely disappointed that they don’t have the support they wanted. I am a supporter of the liberal movement, but they have become very bitter.’

 


 

‘The Muslim Brotherhood are working hard to take over the country. They are resilient and know how to play the game of politics.' 

Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni
International criminal law and Middle East expert

Problematic clauses in the Constitution for the opposition include those affecting personal rights, freedom of expression and religion, women’s rights, and presidential power. Personal rights are qualified by the duty to protect ‘the true nature of the family’ and ‘morals and public order’, while religious freedoms are mitigated by a prohibition on the insulting of individuals or prophets. Presidential power is deemed by some to be excessive as he has the power to appoint the prime minister and ‘civil and military personnel’.

The final draft also declares that the state will ‘balance between a woman’s obligations towards the family and public work’, prompting fears that it will interfere with a woman’s freedom to choose.

However, the final draft no longer includes an article stipulating that equality for women would be subject to conformity with rulings of Islamic law. It mentions ‘freedom’ 34 times and ‘Islam’ or ‘Islamic’ only eight times, and explicitly states that the ‘freedom of citizens shall be upheld in all aspects of life; freedom of opinion, expression and creativity’. It also establishes ‘equality and equal opportunities for all citizens, men and women’, while avowing to uphold democratic rights and the balance of powers.

Unlike the majority of liberal sympathisers, al-Mukhtar believes that if the Constitution goes ahead it will pass by around 70 per cent of the vote. ‘The Constitution protects human rights more than any other Arab Constitution; more than the one the US gave to Iraq, and more than some Western legislation. The problem is not the Constitution, but how it may be interpreted. And if people don’t like this, they can vote them out.’

Under current plans, Egypt will vote for a new parliament two months after a new Constitution is passed.