Thursday, July 25, 2013

Constitutional Declaration raises democratic concerns

USA Today 
Mansour's ruling document raises democratic concerns

CAIRO – Egypt's interim President Adly Mansour's overnight constitutional declaration prompted concerns about democracy and human rights in Egypt's period of tumultuous political transition.

Mansour's declaration preceded his naming of economist Hazem el-Beblawi, a compromise candidate supported by a key Islamist party, as interim prime minister.

He also appointed former United Nations nuclear agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei as deputy to the president, responsible for foreign affairs, spokesman Ahmed El-Musalamani said.

Unlike Monday, which was wracked by attacks that killed 51 people, Tuesday was calmer. Military officials warned political groups against factionalism that would hurt the political transition from ousted president Mohammed Morsi to Mansour.

Mansour's declaration replaces the nation's suspended constitution, which was drafted by an Islamist-dominated body before it was approved in a nationwide vote last year despite lack of consensus among political groups.

The 33-article declaration will remain the country's ruling document until a new constitution is voted in – possibly in about four months.

"Human rights and democracy were not at the forefront for the drafters of this constitutional declaration," said Ziad Abdel Tawab, deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

The 2012 constitution will be revised in the interim period, which could see parliamentary and presidential elections completed by the spring of 2014.

For now, the constitutional declaration rules, disappointing some and worrying others in Egypt.
"If your standard is the best level of democracy in the world … this is very worrying, and there are serious problems" said Zaid Al-Ali, senior adviser on constitution building at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Cairo.

He noted that the whole spirit of the text is in keeping with Egyptian constitutional tradition – for better or worse. "I would say worse," he said.

When the revolution started, "we had very high hopes for what democracy in this country could be, and it looks like although improvements have been made it doesn't look like it will be to the extent that we originally hoped," said Al-Ali, who is Iraqi.

One concern is that the president holds almost all executive and legislative powers until a parliament is elected. It is unclear when presidential elections will take place, Al-Ali said.

There are also human rights concerns.

Freedom of expression is restricted, and the right to freedom of association is rolled back, affecting non-governmental groups, Abdel Tawab said. The declaration also restricts rights such as freedom of religion, similar to the 2012 constitution.

The wording of the new document is similar to a constitutional declaration issued in March 2011 when the country was under military rule after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, said Heba Morayef, the Egypt director of Human Rights Watch.

In this declaration, a provision will allow for military trials of civilians to continue, Morayef said. Instead of spelling out rights, the document states they are guaranteed "in accordance with the law" – not providing constitutional protection.

"It is worrying in the sense that I don't see these rights provisions as setting a check on whatever legislation we may end up with in the next period," Morayef said.

Opposition movement spokesperson Mahmoud Badr said opposition leader ElBaradei, along with a legal expert, plans to propose amendments to the declaration to the presidency, Egyptian news media reported.

For liberal-minded Egyptians, a concern is that the document entrenches sharia by defining the "principles" of Islamic law that are collectively the main source of legislation. The wording has long been a hot-button issue as liberals insisted that "principles" should not be defined, so interpretations can be flexible.

"It was one of the controversial clauses that the liberals objected to in the previous constitution," said political analyst Mazen Hassan in Cairo. "And there are things that if you give, you can't take away. It will be a fight for the liberals to take it out."

Hassan said the clause is a prize for Egypt's Salafis, an ultraconservative portion of the population who practice a seventh-century interpretation of Islam and embrace a restrictive vision of sharia.

"Any route we take, the next period will not be stable and will not be a period where we see all factions agree on the same thing," Hassan said.

Abdel Tawab said the declaration is worrying especially given that it is unclear who is responsible for the country.

"Accountability and end of impunity is at the heart of a democratic transformation," he said, but as long as no one knows whether President Mansour or Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is really in charge, there can be an endless cycle of violence and rights violations.

Rows of dead bodies lined a makeshift morgue Monday after security forces fired on Islamist demonstrators in clashes that killed more than 50 people, prompting calls for an impartial investigation.

The military-installed government arrested members of the media as well as Muslim Brotherhood figures, including Morsi who has been detained incommunicado for several days. Monday, Human Rights Watch said at least 15 other Brotherhood leaders and members were detained.

Authorities shut down several Islamist television stations after Morsi was ousted from power.

"Without strict respect for the rule of law and basic rights from the start, there will be no political freedom," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, in a recent statement.

*Contributing: Associated Press

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