Egypt constitution amendments enshrine military power

New charter will pave the way for a nationwide referendum on the military-instituted political transition plan

Cairo has been the site of extensive unrest since the July military overthrow of Mohamed Morsi.
Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Extensive amendments to the constitution adopted under Egypt's ousted president give the military more privileges, enshrining its place as the nation's most powerful institution and source of real power while removing parts that liberals feared set the stage for the creation of an Islamic state.

The new draft constitution is a key first step in implementing a political transition laid down by the military after it removed Mohamed Morsi from power. A 50-member panel declared the draft finished Monday, paving the way for a nationwide referendum within 30 days to ratify the document.

The military-backed government has heralded the draft charter as a step toward democracy — seeking to prove the credentials of the post-Morsi system amid continuing protests by Morsi supporters furious over the coup against the country's first democratically elected president.

The amended document enshrines personal and political rights in stronger language than past constitutions. But rights experts express fears that the political power carved out for the military could make those rights irrelevant.

One key clause states that for the next two presidential terms the armed forces will enjoy the exclusive right of naming the defense minister, an arrangement that gives the military autonomy above any civilian oversight and leaves the power of the president uncertain. The charter does not say how the post will be filled following that eight-year transitional period.

"This just paves the way for a bigger role for the army in becoming the main power broker," said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a leading member of the Revolutionary Socialists movement, a key player in the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country for 29 years.

The runup to the referendum is likely to be contentious. Egypt's new leadership is pushing for the revised charter to win by a greater margin than the 2012 version, which was the country's first post-Mubarak constitution and was largely drafted by Morsi's allies.

That document won a December 2012 referendum with about 64 percent of the vote – but with a low turnout of little more than 30 percent. A bigger margin and stronger turnout now could be touted as a show of the legitimacy of the post-coup system.

Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its followers, however, reject the new government and the entire transition process, demanding Morsi's return — and they are likely to push ahead with protests to try to derail the new document. Some secular activists will also likely campaign against the new charter because of the power it gives the military.

The constitutional panel, appointed by the government and dominated by liberals, worked mainly behind closed doors. On Monday, with their work completed, the members praised the 67-page draft.

The new charter also goes further than its predecessors in guaranteeing freedom of expression and other rights. It criminalizes torture and ensures equality between men and women, as well as women's and children's rights. It guarantees the freedom of belief as "absolute."

But the power of the military enshrined in the document raises concerns that those rights could be undermined. The new draft removes some loopholes that Mubarak's military-backed regime used to get around rights guarantees — but there are fears that rights could be swept under the rug in the name of security.

Since Morsi's ouster, hundreds of his supporters have been killed by security forces in crackdowns on protests. Pro-Morsi TV channels have been shut down. And this week, two of the iconic secular "revolutionaries" of the 2011 revolt — Alaa Abdel-Fattah and Ahmed Maher — were detained under a law banning any protests without a police permit.

The new charter also fails to ensure any level of transparency for the armed forces' budget or details of its vast economic empire, which includes interests in construction, road building, bottled water and land reclamation.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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