Muslim Brotherhood and Constitutional Amendments

Muslim Brotherhood and Constitutional Amendments

The Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) attitudes towards the latest constitutional amendments were the clearest among those of other political powers; thus, the media gave it more focus.

Very briefly, the MB’s attitude can be outlined in the following points:

1-The MB believes that the nation must have a written constitution that defines the powers and interrelations in the country, sets a balance between authorities, protects public freedoms and personal rights. Furthermore, the text of this constitution should be clear, specific and non-contradictory, and it must be well-grounded. This is the MB’s attitude since the 1930s.

2-When the idea of constitutional reform and amending the constitution was first presented, the MB view was that political reform should be given a priority over any constitutional reform. This is because the constitution should, in reality, reflect the balance of powers and main trends in society, and establish key pillars for society. Thus, under an atmosphere of violating freedoms and imposing a state of emergency, and under the restrictions imposed on parties and political powers, any constitutional amendments will reflect the unilateral view of the regime. It will also support tyranny and corruption, and put power and wealth in the hands of a small group, while the rights of citizens are violated and the demands of the lower and middle classes are not addressed.

3-Last year, in the first round of the new parliament in which the MB claims a fifth of the seats, and when president Mubarak demanded MPs to offer suggestions on the constitutional reform, the Muslim Brotherhood MPs were the only ones who offered an integrated view that set a balance between their earlier view for the priority of political reform and what the president demanded. They offered amendments to texts that lead to more political openness, freedom of parties, curbing monopoly of power, increasing powers of parliament, ending the state of emergency, imposing tight restrictions on reinstating this state of emergency, in addition to protecting the main factors of the Egyptian society: human rights, public freedom and social justice.

Needless to say, no one cared about what the MB presented as amendments- particularly the amendment to Article 77 which gives the president only two terms, and Article 5 in which the MB demanded giving freedom in forming parties only through notification. The MB had even lodged a new bill of law that organizes the work of parties, which they lodged again this year.

4-When president Mubarak suggested amending Article 76 in 2005, the MB’s attitude was clear: accepting, in principle, the amendment that changed holding a referendum on one candidate for presidency to holding a direct vote to choose between more than one candidate. The MB suggested this in a briefly worded statement:” the presidential elections are held between more than one candidate in a direct, confidential vote as prescribed by law”. The MB also strongly opposed the offered wording and voted against it in the parliament. However, the MB decided to participate positively in the first presidential elections in order to encourage people to go to the polls, although this measure was criticized by some.

5-When the president decided in his speech on December 26, 2006 to amend 34 Articles in one block, this was a serious indication that the regime was planning to maintain the status quo. The Articles which the president suggested amending were not the ones the opposition demanded to amend. This meant shutting the door in the face of any political openness in the regime- and in the face of revising the severe restrictions that prohibit any serious competition on the presidency, with a temporary symbolic amendment that allows some parties to field their candidate in front of the candidate who has previously won, candidates chosen by the regime’s few elite without any public participation. This also deals a deathblow to any hopes of having free and fair elections, through amending Article 88 which the Supreme Constitutional Court decided, as explained it in its ruling, that judicial supervision means:” a judge for every ballot box”. This would set the stage for a return to rigging elections, and people turning their backs on the elections as a means for change. Political life will remain stagnant, while the parties and political powers will remain feeble, especially after amending Article 5 that bans any political activity with a religious basis, and not only any party formation. They added “based on any religious source of authority” as if the constitution does not contain the second Article, stipulating that the state’s official religion is Islam and that the tenets of the Islamic Sharia are the main source for legislation.

When the Grand Imam of Al Azhar challenged the opposition”s consensus on boycotting the referendum on the amendments and called people to boycott it, citing the noble verse:” do not hide testimony”, he was effectively backing this strange Article. What is more serious is that he didn”t perform the same task of exposing the government rigging, although the Interior Ministry does not hide its interference. The Prime Minister declared in his remarks to US magazine “Newsweek” that security interventions prevented the MB from winning 40 more seats in the 2005 elections.

The regime is planning to maintain the existing deteriorating situation, which is clear from the amended Article 179 which makes the state of emergency, and the exceptional authority given to police forces under it, a normal state under anti-terrorism laws. This diminishes all guarantees of public and private freedoms in houses, personal contacts and movement, and even the freedom of demonstrating and gathering under the pretext of preventing intimidation, introduced in Article 86 (bis) in the current penal code, which defines terrorism and does not restrict it to using or threatening to use force.

6-Although the Muslim Brotherhood MPs knew very well the seriousness of the proposed amendments, they dealt with them in order to fulfill their Sharia and national duties, and due to their importance and impact on the future of Egypt, the MB MPs did the following:

* They held several workshops for civil discussion with other independent and opposition MPs. They also invited intellectuals, professors of constitutional law and researchers to discuss the issue.

*They concluded with drafting alternative wording for the 34 suggested Articles, and through it they aimed at:

– Minimizing losses, or presenting a better substitute.

– Exposing the tyrannical unilateral approach of the ruling elite.

– Coordinating with all opposition groups.

– Fulfilling our duties to Allah Glory be to Him through doing this.

– Showing the public opinion necessary clarifications around the proposed wording.

*The Muslim Brotherhood MPs rejected the proposed amendments in principle in the first sessions of discussion within the People”s Assembly for the following reasons:

– The president didn”t respond to public opinion demanding other essential amendments.

– The tense political atmosphere dominated by a state of emergency, the weakness of the parties, security’s control over everything in the country, and the absence of a national general consensus among all political powers in a complete dialogue about the optimal method of dealing with the suggested amendments.

– The behavior of the regime that does not respect the constitution and does not apply its texts and even violates them without any accountability. For example, the Constitutional Court issued several rulings that the election laws are unconstitutional but the regime ignored them, like it ignored other rulings.

*They attended all hearing sessions, in which most constitutional law professors confirmed that the suggested amendments are serious and objected to them, and pointed out that the suggestions did not address the declared advantages, but are actually violating rights guaranteed by the current constitution and contradict with each other and contain imprecise wording, as in Article 76.

* They attended the sessions of the Legislative Committee which is entrusted with drafting the amendments, and they requested participation in the subcommittee that drafts them in order to put their suggested wording on the table while preparing the report, but they were excluded from this subcommittee.

*They decided finally to boycott the sessions of the Legislative Committee and the Assembly”s general sessions, in which the MPs would vote on the dictations drafted by a subcommittee outside the Assembly, sidelining the powers of all MPs, including the ruling Democratic Party MPs. They declared a unified stance with most opposition and independent MPs in that what happened amounts to a constitutional coup and a certificate of death to private and public freedoms and that there would be no more free and fair elections.

7-The Muslim Brotherhood called on all people to boycott the March 26 referendum which was suspiciously sped up so that those who prepared and tailored the amendments wouldn’t be caught red-handed robbing people of their will and rigging the referendum as usual because the result is known beforehand.

8-Finally, the Muslim Brotherhood called on the political powers, including official parties, parties under construction and public movements to hold a meeting to face the burdens of the new phase. Hopefully mobilizing the national front towards change will be the optimal solution in these circumstances.

How to Understand the Muslim Brotherhood”s Attitude?

The Muslim Brotherhood”s attitude towards this issue emerges from deep-rooted concepts which were adopted at the group’s inception. We need to highlight, in order to distinguish it from other Islamic groups:

First: The Muslim Brotherhood believes that the parliamentary constitutional system is the world”s closest system to Islamic Sharia. The MB considers it the best alternative.

Second: The Muslim Brotherhood believes that although they always chant their everlasting slogan “Quran is our constitution”, and “Quran is our law”, but it believes that the nation must have a written constitution that defines authorities, its duties and interrelations; a written constitution that protects private and public freedoms, and reflects the main constituents of any society and the character and main source of the country’s authority.

Third: The Muslim Brotherhood believes although it is important to have a written constitution, failure to practically apply this constitution so that it is reflected in the laws which are the texts and essence of the constitution will decrease people”s respect for the constitution. Also, any contradiction among the constitutional texts makes it inapplicable, and is open to contradictory interpretations which may deepen divisions among people.

Fourth: The Muslim Brotherhood believes that the constitutional traditions with which people may live with are sometimes stronger than the constitutional texts which aren”t respected, or do not reflect the main factors of the society. Countries which are deep-rooted in the parliamentary and democratic practice like England still don”t have a written constitution.

Fifth: The Muslim brotherhood believes that there should be a national consensus among all political parties on the constitution or any constitutional amendments through an open dialogue.

Sixth: The Muslim Brotherhood believes that the society and the MPs should be positive and deal seriously with issues and that an alternative should be offered if all demands can’t be met.

Seventh: The Muslim Brotherhood rarely resorts to withdrawal or boycott unless other parties are not serious, it is useless to participate or there is a need to send a wake-up call that the situation is serious.

Eighth: The Muslim Brotherhood adopts the above mentioned concepts according to deep rooted rules and concepts and juristic and Islamic principles that endorses seeking Maslaha (public interest) and avoiding mafsada (corruption).

* Essam El-Erian is a Muslim Brotherhood leader and head of its political section.