Marry in Haste, Repent at Leisure: the Problem With the Egyptian Constitution

Apart from the fact that the new Egyptian Constitution was rammed through at the last minute, at a moment when the non-Islamists had walked out of the Constituent Assembly in protest; as well as the fact that the judiciary was held at bay after President Mohammed Morsi had issued a decree placing himself above the judges and, more importantly, making it impossible for the courts to dissolve the Constituent Assembly; we should pose the question: what is the problem with the Egyptian Constitution which, after all, was approved in a referendum by some 64 percent of those voting?

In examining this question, I refer in particular to an article in Le Monde of December 5, 2012 , citing a French specialist on Egypt, Baudoin Dupret ("The draft Egyptian Constitution dominated by ambiguity").

In its description of sharia as the source of law, the new Constitution differs little from a similar passage in the Constitution of 1971, promulgated under the presidency of Anwar Sadat. (In practice, though family law is governed by sharia, otherwise Egypt is still administered by the Napoleonic Code, like many other countries outside the sway of English common law).

However, further along in the text (Article 219), the principles of sharia are defined as those of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence under Sunni Islam. This is new: heretofore, the principles of sharia were defined by the courts. Furthermore, in another novation, the Islamic University of al-Azhar is given a role of "consultation" regarding anything that relates to sharia. As Dupret puts it, it leaves the door open to a more conservative interpretation over the course of time.

In the matter of the family, there is an elimination of the phrase equality between men and women and a reference instead to the vague formula of equality among all Egyptians. Furthermore, it is prescribed that the state will help women balance work and family life. And finally, the state is given the mission of putting the arts, the sciences, and literature at the service of society.

The above issues appear to be the principal points of contention between the text of the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Constitution and the aspirations of the non-Islamists, many of whom are among the youth. Though this matter is not at the heart of the country's current crisis, marked by rampant insecurity and economic stasis, the ambiguities contained in the Constitution may cause serious problems in the future. In the meantime, President Morsi has stated his willingness to make amendments to the text. TBD.