09/25/2012, 00.00
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Moderate against Islamist constituent assembly's denial of women's rights

They point the finger at Article 36 of the draft constitution, which the constituent assembly adopted a few days ago. The article recognises the equality between men and women as long as they conform to Islamic precepts. Freedom of the press, expression and scientific research would also be restricted under the new constitution. Pro-democracy parties want an alternative proposal for people to vote on.

Cairo (AsiaNews) - Egypt's Islamist-dominated constituent assembly is drafting a constitution that undermines women's rights, limits press freedom and freedom to demonstrate as well as subordinates fundamental rights to Islamic precepts. In recent weeks, Egyptian intellectuals and representatives of moderate parties have presented petitions and appeals to reform the assembly, saying it was unrepresentative of Egyptian society.

Article 36 of the draft constitution (on rights and duties) has especially raised concerns since it states that the state will "ensure equality of women with men in all walks of political, cultural, economic and social life, without contradicting the precepts of Islamic Law."

Wording that refers to Islamic precepts worries moderate forces because it could be the first step to making Sharia a point of reference for the constitution.

Last Sunday, four moderate parties, including the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Popular Socialist Coalition, and Free Egyptians party as well as various women's groups issued a statement. In it, they noted that such unclear wording "endangers the democracy that everyone aspired for and sacrificed for."  Likewise, they stress that the decades-old struggle by Egyptian women for equal rights with men cannot be erased by a group that does not represent the entire people.

The statement went on to say that a constitutional referendum should not be put up to a single yes-or-no vote, but should rather be voted upon section-by-section. It added that the approval rate for amendments to pass should also be raised to 75 per cent, and that public debate on the constitution should be increased beyond the 15 days currently planned after the draft constitution is completed.

The new proposal concerning freedom of the press has also raised eyebrows. Under the draft constitution, national media would be under the authority of the Supreme Council of the Press in the Shura Council, which will remain under the control of the majority party. Thus, it will not be an independent body.

Overall, not much would change from the Mubarak regime, the one main difference being the possibility of launching newspapers by private citizens.

Under the proposed draft, the right to demonstrate and hold sit-ins would also be subject to parliamentary approval.

Islamists are accused of limited artistic freedom as well. They have removed "Literary, artistic and cultural creativity is the right of every citizen" from the 'Freedoms and Rights' section in favour of 'Freedom of creativity,' without adequately outlining its meaning.

The Islamist majority also removed the article on the freedom of scientific research, by placing it in the section on 'basic components' of state and society, thereby restricting science to universities and other public research facilities.

"This is a critical phase," said Mohamed Salmawy, head of the Egyptian Writers Union, at a conference.

For him, "Now that a new regime is stabilising, there is a risk that the new constitution will be formulated by only one section of society. [. . .] Winning a parliamentary majority gave the [Islamists] some authority, but not the right to exclude others from writing the national charter," Salmawy noted.

In order to create a broad coalition of moderate parties and intellectuals against the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, Bahieddin Hassan, head of the Cairo Centre for Human Rights, urges a rethink of how the current assembly was drawn up.

"The [current] draft constitution jeopardises Egypt's unity," Hassan explained. "It also compromises equality and goes so far as to exclude faiths other than Sunni Islam."

In August, the constituent assembly announced that a first draft proposal for the constitution would be ready by the end of September.

Sources tell AsiaNews that the legality of the assembly might be challenged in the Supreme Court following the dissolution by the same court of the Islamist-dominated parliament because it was elected according to an electoral law that violated the provisional constitution. (S.C.)

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