12/02/2013, 00.00
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Egypt's new constitution protects religious freedom, but gives too much power to the military

Released yesterday, the draft proposal ostensibly respects human rights, freedom of religion and freedom of worship. Quotas will be set for Christians, women, the disabled and other groups, but no percentage is given. Controversy surrounds the excessive powers given to the army and the interim government. Fr Greich Rafiq, spokesman for the Catholic Church, wonders whether the new constitution was "drafted in order to please everyone, or will it be used as an effective legislative tool that can change the country."

Cairo (AsiaNews) - Egypt's constituent assembly has released its proposed new constitution. It includes articles guaranteeing, among other things, freedom of religion and freedom worship, the right for Christians to build their churches and other buildings, quotas in parliament and local government for Christians, women and people with disabilities, full respect for human life. However, it also calls for court-martials against people who attack the military. After it receives Senate (Shura) approval, the 247-article draft will be submitted to a referendum between now and January 2014.

Interviewed by AsiaNews, Fr. Greich Rafiq, spokesman for the Egyptian Catholic Church, said that the "document is full of positive changes;" however "it falls short of Christian expectations".

For the clergyman, quotas represent "positive discrimination". However, whilst they offer Christians the opportunity to be elected to parliament and take part in local government, they also go against the principle of political and social equality with Muslims.

Fr Greiche noted the great involvement of Antonios Aziz, Catholic Church representative in the Constituent Assembly, who tried to get references to Pope Paul VI's Encyclical Humanae Vitae included in the draft proposal, in particular the pope's call to respect the rights of children and women, the right to education and the defence of life.

The priest warns however that whilst they include many new features, the draft constitution and the final text might remain just empty words. "Like all other constitutions, Egypt's constitution will be meaningful only if it is enforced on the ground." For him, the open question is whether the charter will be drafted in order to please everyone, or will it be used as an effective legislative tool that can change the country."

Since Mohamed Morsi's ouster, the country has been plunged into chaos and tensions. For weeks, Islamist students have protested outside Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering against the interim government and the new law that bans unauthorised demonstrations.

Yesterday, a young man was killed by a gunshot. The murder was immediately blamed on a police officer, but investigators found that the type of bullet involved is not issued to law enforcement agencies.

At the same time, Muslims continue attacking Christians in Upper Egypt with the latest episode occurring on 28 November in Wabor (Minya), where a group of Islamists from the nearby village of Hawarta attacked and destroyed homes and shops owned by members of the Coptic Orthodox community.

The Islamists left only after a joint police-army intervention, who however simply disperses the crowd without arresting the perpetrators of violence.

Law enforcement and respect for human rights by government and society remain one of Egypt's main problems. Despite changes to the version proposed by Mohamed Morsi's Islamist government, the new draft has been criticised for granting too much power to the interim government.

An example is Article 204, which bans military trials for civilians "except in cases which represent a direct assault on armed forces institutions, their camps or anything that falls under their authority". Anyone attacking soldiers or officers performing their duties is subject to a court martial.

Criticism has also been voiced against Articles 229, 243 and 244, which come under Section 2 of Chapter 6 of the charter, which contains temporary provisions related to the current transitional period.

Article 229 had originally called for two-thirds of members of parliament to be independent, with the remaining third drawn from party lists. Now it would leave the matter with interim President Adly Mansour.

The two other articles - 243 and 244 - had initially allowed parliamentary quotas for workers, farmers, young people, Christians, and persons with disabilities, but the constituent assembly decided to leave the issue open, noting only that each group would have "proper representation".

Article 230 was also challenged. The earlier version said that parliamentary elections would take place within 30 to 90 days of the constitution's approval, with presidential elections held within 30 days of the convening of parliament.

The new version drops the requirement for parliamentary elections to be held before presidential elections. Instead, its new provisions state that elections should be held within six months of ratifying the constitution, and that whichever poll is held first should occur within 30 days of ratification. (SC)

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