Egypt Heads For Showdown Over New Constitution Critics say Egypt's draft constitution, which was drawn up and approved mostly by Islamists, doesn't represent all Egyptians. They say the draft gives key Islamic scholars too much power on a broad range of legislative issues.

Egypt Heads For Showdown Over New Constitution

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.

Egyptians are deeply divided over a draft constitution that will be put to a nationwide referendum starting on Saturday. The document was drafted by an assembly dominated by Islamists. Most secular members of the panel, along with women and Christian representatives, walked out in protest before the draft was complete. Critics say the draft gives key Islamic scholars too much power on a broad range of legislative issues, but it's still unclear what that would mean in practice. Merrit Kennedy is in Cairo and she sent this report.

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Islamic law, or Sharia, has long been a central part of the Egyptian legal system. If the new constitution is approved by voters, that role will be expanded. The constitution calls for religious scholars at Cairo's al-Azhar University to weigh in on national legislation. The school is the seat of Sunni Islam, where scholars propagate Islamic religion and culture worldwide. Al-Azhar, an institution more than a thousand year old, is seen as relatively moderate in its read of Sharia.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

KENNEDY: On a recent afternoon, al-Azhar clerics, in long robes and red and white turbans, lined a busy Cairo street. They chanted, al-Azhar says yes to the constitution.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

KENNEDY: But even al-Azhar is divided on the issue. A smaller group of its clerics marched in a rally against the draft, videoed and posted on the website of Ahram Online.

The draft constitution gives al-Azhar's clerics an advisory role in matters related to Islamic law, although it does not say that the clerics' opinions are binding on the Constitutional Court, Egypt's highest Judicial body. Atteya Fayyad is a professor at al-Azhar and was a member of the assembly drafting the constitution.

ATTEYA FAYYAD: (Through translator) The Constitutional Court does not eliminate al-Azhar's role; neither does al-Azhar eliminate the Constitutional Court's role.

KENNEDY: But Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University, says the issue will arise even if al-Azhar's opinions aren't binding.

NATHAN BROWN: Anytime you have al-Azhar weighing in on a topic, it's going to be difficult for any political force or party or leader to go against it.

KENNEDY: Khaled Fahmy, the chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo, says that there's a dangerous loophole in the Azhar clause. He says that the draft isn't clear about whether the court or Azhar holds final authority.

KHALED FAHMY: This means that the Egyptian legal and constitutional framework is now subject to enormous pressure. Because we can have, now, two bodies in the country, with equal weight, with different reference points, on which to interpret that central text. This is a recipe for disaster.

KENNEDY: Some Egyptians are worried about what an expansion of Sharia in legislation would mean for them, like computer programmer Mina Samy, speaking at a recent protest

MINA SAMY: Any people different than the Islamist fundamentalists would be persecuted under the Sharia law.

KENNEDY: But historian Khaled Fahmy says it's unclear what the Azhar provision, and another clause that defines the principles of Sharia, would mean in practice if the draft constitution passes.

FAHMY: What exactly is meant by Sharia is a key question, and so far no one has dared to give a precise answer to this question.

KENNEDY: Nathan Brown says he expects little would change overnight.

BROWN: What I would expect, however, would be a slow move toward drawing much more on Islamic law when making ordinary Egyptian legislation.

KENNEDY: Brown says the provisions may open the door for Sharia to influence other legal areas, like criminal law. This would be a break from the past, when Sharia was pre-eminent, mostly, in personal status issues.

BROWN: I think where that will clash most with the aspirations of liberals and human rights groups and so on, might be in areas of gender equality, and it might be in areas of, sort of, cultural expression - Novelists or filmmakers might find a bit more of a restrictive environment.

KENNEDY: Analysts here say the impact of these provisions depends largely on whether Islamists continue to dominate the government.

For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo.

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