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Looking To Rebuild, Egypt Leans On New Constitution


In 2011, thousands of Egyptians put their lives on the line in a revolution that would ultimately bring down a dictator. Now, the principles at the heart of that struggle are being defined in a new Egyptian constitution. The document is being written by an assembly made up mostly of Islamists. Liberal and secular groups are protesting the recent draft; they're concerned about the rights of minorities and women. On Tuesday, a court in Cairo will decide whether to dissolve the drafting assembly and start the process all over.

Nathan Brown is a professor at George Washington University. He teaches courses on the rule of law in the Arab world, and He's with me in the studio to explain just what is at stake for Egyptians. Thanks so much for being here.

NATHAN BROWN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Americans have a very specific notion of what a constitution looks like. Does Egypt's draft constitution look anything like the U.S. Constitution?

BROWN: Well, vaguely. I mean, it defines what the government is going to do and how it's structured, and so on. But it really looks fundamentally different. It's part of a different constitutional tradition. They've probably based much more on European than American models.

MARTIN: And this is not a secular document.

BROWN: No, it's not a secular document. It says right from the beginning that Egypt has an official religion, and that's Islam. It makes provisions for other sorts of religions, but there's no attempt to separate religion and state.

MARTIN: Secular activists in Egypt say that the constitutional process is being essentially dominated by an Islamist group in the country. But you and other analysts have said that they've actually shown restraint while drafting the constitution. How so?

BROWN: Yeah, I think both are true. If you look at the 100 members of this constituent assembly that's drafting this document, most of them are Islamists, and they were elected by a parliament that was dominated by Islamists. But the Islamists in that body seem to have some sense that if they can get a political system up and running and free and regular elections, they're probably going to do pretty well in that election. So, that means that they're willing to defer an awful lot of issues. They want a constitution that works, that has wide buy-in, and they'd rather have that than to put all the Islamic revisions that they would like to put in that constitution. So, there's a lot of Islamic elements in there, but they tend to be kind of vague. And really what they're trying to do, I think, is just get regular politics started again.

MARTIN: Let's get into some of the nitty-gritty. There are articles in this constitution, this draft that critics consider essentially contradictory, most notably, I understand, Article 68. This is an article that deals with gender equality. But it also states that it cannot conflict with the rulings of Islamic sharia law, right?

BROWN: Yes. That's it. We don't really know what the final text will look like because this is still a work in progress. But the draft that they have right now has exactly that kind of provision. So, it sounds like it's giving women's rights at the beginning of it and then taking it away with this provision for sharia law. Now, the interesting thing about that article is that same wording was used in the 1971 constitution. So, Egyptians have been living with that kind of language for 40 years. The reason it's there is because women's activists want a very strong gender equality provision and Islamists and Islamic religious scholars say wait a second. Islamic personal status law - that's marriage, divorce and inheritance - is not gender-neutral. Men and women have different rights and obligations. And we don't want to use that constitution to wipe out an important area of law that is influenced by Islamic law. So, it's a compromise wording. So, the Egyptians have been living, as I said, with that compromise for 40 years. What will be different after 2012, if this constitution goes into effect, is that you'll now increasingly have an Islamic parliament, an Islamic executive branch, or one in which Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood who have a prominent say, who are going to be interpreting and applying that ruling. And that's what's making people nervous.

MARTIN: And what happens if the courts decides this coming Tuesday to dissolve the assembly and start all over?

BROWN: Well, according to Egypt's interim constitution, what happens then is those 100 people go home and a new 100 people are named by the president. And the president is Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood. So, if the opponents of Islamists manage to win that lawsuit, they may be looking at constituent assembly that's worse from their perspective.

MARTIN: As someone who watches this subject a lot, how do you characterize what's happening right now as Egypt is struggling to come up with a constitution? Is this just part of the process? It's messy, or is this particularly difficult?

BROWN: Well, most constitutions are - if people take them seriously - are very messy, 'cause you're dealing with really kind of fundamental issues and trying to hammer out rules for governing normal political life in the political community that is often very divided. What's difficult, I think, in the Egyptian case is that most Egyptian political forces aren't used to having to deal with each other. They had this strong presidency that was sitting on top of them for so long. And now suddenly they're facing each other in the room with nobody sort of controlling things. So, liberals, secularists, Islamists, leftists, people from all across the political spectrum are having to hammer out an agreement, and they're not used to having to do that.

MARTIN: You think they'll make it work in the end?

BROWN: I think they will make it work. I think it will be rocky, because in a sense every actor in this process has one sort of ace in the hole, and that's the threat of, like, walking out and disrupting the entire process. So, we're going to see a very kind of stormy process and one with an awful lot of drama and even melodrama. In the end I think they will get a workable constitution.

MARTIN: Nathan Brown - he's a professor at George Washington University - studying the rule of law in the Arab world. Thanks so much for joining us, professor.

BROWN: Thank you.


MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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