New draft constitution in egypt: the military is strengthened

The bill gives the army important powers, but also establishes basic rights. A law on demonstrations and assemblies is controversial.

On Monday in Alexandria: Egyptians protest against the new demonstration law. Picture: ap

Egypt has a new draft constitution. A 50-member constituent assembly had voted on each of the 247 paragraphs individually over the weekend after several months of deliberation. And even the paragraph that caused the most controversy was passed in the end: the military will be able to appoint its own defense minister for the next eight years.

The now banned Muslim Brotherhood, which had provided the last elected president in the form of Mohammed Mursi, was not represented on the constitutional commission. This gives a bitter taste to the catalog of fundamental rights that was largely positively defined in the draft.

The timetable for the democratic transition was changed at the last minute. The draft constitution will now be submitted to the interim president, Adli Mansur, who must set a date for a referendum, probably in the second half of January.

Originally, the draft stated that once the constitution was ratified, parliamentary elections would have to be held within 90 days and then presidential elections within six months. But now it is up to Mansur to decide which elections to hold and when within six months.

Criticism of permit requirement for assemblies

The atmosphere in which all this is to take place is problematic. A new law on demonstrations and assemblies is particularly controversial. "Certainly every democratic country has the right to establish a certain procedure for protests," Tamara Alrifai in the Cairo office of the U.S. human rights organization Human Rights Watch comments. But this new law, she says, is effectively designed to shut down any public dissent.

Alrifai is particularly critical of the fact that gatherings of more than ten people require a permit. She also finds it disturbing that security forces can quickly skip all other counterinsurgency measures and have effectively been given a blank check to use firearms.

She says it is particularly disastrous to introduce such a law in the run-up to the planned constitutional referendum and before the presidential and parliamentary elections. "This law means that those who want to say no to the referendum or vote differently in elections will be treated restrictively," she says, summing up her fears. "Because how can you organize dissent under these circumstances?"

Angry students in Cairo

By now, the strong arm of the Egyptian police five months after the coup is not only being felt by the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Prominent young secular Tahrir activists, such as Alaa Abdel Fatah and Ahmad Maher, were also arrested last week for taking part in an unauthorized demonstration.

Meanwhile, students at Cairo University are also demonstrating after one of them was shot dead by police on campus during protests against the military. Meanwhile, new coalitions are forming there between Muslim Brotherhood members, leftists and Tahrir activists.

"We’re just going to ignore the new law on demonstrations, because we won the right to protest in the streets when Mubarak fell," declares student Ahmad Ghoneimi as he and his fellow students angrily march down the street in front of the university. "Nobody is going to take that away from us anymore," he says.