Ahmed Maher

Credit: Hossam el-Hamalawy on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)–Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the liberal organizations at the forefront of revolutionary protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year, is doing all he can to stop a national referendum on Egypt’s controversial draft constitution, set for this weekend.

He hopes that ongoing demonstrations by others in Tahrir Square and in front of the Presidential Palace will pressure President Mohammed Morsi to make major concessions on the draft charter, which does little to protect minorities, women and unions.

“We are against the proposed constitution and are taking part in protests against the constitution. We don’t believe in Morsi and we as the April 6 Movement have stopped supporting Morsi and we will do our best to stop this referendum,” said Maher.

The widespread outpouring of anger has forced the president’s advisors to meet with intellectuals this week to discuss possible compromises to some of the more divisive articles, according to The New York Times. But advisors to the president refused to say what those concessions might entail.

The recent political unrest, which claimed five lives, is one of the worst outbreaks of political violence since the uprising that led to the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Long-simmering tensions between Islamists and liberals hit a flashpoint after Morsi gave himself full executive powers in November, which had critics likening him to autocrat Mubarak.

Morsi backed down on the power grab earlier this month, but still refuses to delay a constitutional referendum. The vote is being opposed by political activists and members of the judiciary, who suspect the charter will be used to consolidate power for Morsi’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood party as well as limit freedom of expression and human rights in a country that has already suffered decades of repression under emergency law.

Article 10 Concerns

Rights activists also say the draft constitution will extend the reach of Islamic law, or Sharia, throughout society. Watchdogs for women’s rights are spotlighting the loose wording of Article 10, which could potentially target some hard-won gains during the Mubarak era.

Several months ago, for instance, a female Muslim Brotherhood Islamist parliamentarian told Women’s eNews that she opposes the 2008 ban on female genital mutilation, which is widespread in Egypt and affects about 91 percent of women here, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.

Azza El Garf, the parliamentarian, didn’t directly attack the country’s 2005 liberalization of divorce laws for women, but added that divorce had become too easy.

Article 10 empowers the government to “preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family, its cohesion and stability and to protect its moral values, all as regulated by law,” according to a translation published by the English-language daily, Egypt Independent.”The state shall ensure maternal and child health services free of charge,” the article also says, “and enable the reconciliation between the duties of a woman toward her family and her work.”

Article 11 is also of concern, said Hanaa Ebeid, a senior researcher on international relations for the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, an independent political think tank based in Cairo. She says the article stipulates that the state should preserve ethics and values including religious values, which could be used as a “gateway to imposing garb or freedom restrictions or undoing or abolishing previously enacted laws that allowed women the right to divorce. An age limit on marriage for young girls is also absent.”

Other articles place limits on the establishment of new television, radio and online media enterprise and allow the military to try civilians in military courts.

The committee drafting the constitution, originally made up of 100 people, has also come under fire after members from liberal groups, the judiciary and religious organizations walked out on the process, claiming their voices hadn’t been heard and left the committee without female representation.

Push for Inclusive Involvement

Nicholas Piachaud is a North Africa campaigner for Amnesty International, one of the first global organizations to openly criticize the proposed constitution.

Piachaud said women and minorities should be more directly involved in the process of drafting post-Mubarak constitutional and legal frameworks. His organization also urges Egyptian authorities to encourage women’s participation in elections and public office.

“We are very concerned over the lack of human rights guarantees in the constitution, particularly in respect of women’s rights,” Piachaud said in an email interview. “The constitution does not specifically state that discrimination against women is prohibited; instead virtually the only mention of women is in relation to the home and family. Furthermore, we’re concerned that provisions on Sharia law are likely to be used to uphold existing discriminatory laws and practices against women, particularly in relation with marriage and divorce.”

Members of religious minorities could also be made more vulnerable by this constitution, said Piachaud. “The proposed constitution only explicitly provides for adherents of Islam, Christianity and Judaism to regulate their religious affairs and spiritual leadership. It is unclear how the rights of other religious groups … will be protected, such as the Baha’is.”

Ebeid added that drafters have created the conditions for “Islamist hegemony” on future legislatures by adding a section that reinstates parliament members who were forced out after they won seats designated for candidates unaffiliated with political parties.

That would restore the almost 75 percent majority shared by the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafi Al Nour party, which are associated with preserving what they consider the traditional role for women as wives and caregivers for children. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, supports abolishing Egypt’s National Women’s Council in favor of a state body dedicated to preserving families.

The reinstatement of parliamentarians would erase the action of Egypt’s Constitutional Court last summer, when the court dissolved the People’s Assembly and Shura Council after finding almost a third of parliamentarians who had run for posts in the lower house (the People’s Assembly) violated election law.

Violent Clashes

Sarah Wali is the marketing and business development manager for the Egypt Media Development Program, a media training organization for Egyptian journalists headquartered in the capital. On Dec. 5 she watched in horror as thousands of protesters holding a sit-in at the Presidential Palace clashed with Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist presidential supporters below her apartment in Heliopolis.

“From my window I could hear a boom coming from behind the Brotherhood supporters,” she wrote on her blog. “The first time it happened I stood confused, breathing heavily. Then the back of my throat started to burn, the intensity rising up to my nose, then my eyes. My sinuses were on fire, and I didn’t have vinegar or coke. I quickly shut the window and closed my eyes, waiting for the pain of the tear gas to die down.”

Wali opposes the draft constitution, but thinks that Egyptians’ fear of further violence could produce a “yes” vote.

“I think that the Egyptian people are most concerned with security above anything else,” Wali said in a phone interview. “What [Morsi’s government] did was tell the Egyptian people that even if they say yes, the opposition can make changes to the constitution [after the referendum]. So even if you vote yes, you’re not really saying yes to the constitution necessarily, you’re saying yes to security.”

Jessica Gray is a Canadian journalist reporting on the Middle East from Cairo.

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