In late August, 40-year-old Arafa Kamel set himself on fire outside the presidential palace in Heliopolis after a disagreement with his employers, who disregarded a court verdict reinstating him after his dismissal.
Several newspapers referred to Kamel as “Bouazizi,” the Tunisian street vendor who self-immolated and ignited a series of revolutions. Bouazizi’s death is a reminder that the revolutions were sparked by economic and social pleas as much as they were by political oppression.
The ongoing constitution-writing process is expected to address a host of social and economic grievances. The Constituent Assembly finished drafting 50 articles related to freedoms and public duties, 14 of which tackle citizens’ economic and social rights. Economic and social rights represent about 12 percent of the overall constitution.
Those 14 articles received negative reactions from observers and civil society activists, who described them as short on details on citizens’ rights. They pale in public discourse when compared to other issues related to the identity of the state and the secular-religious divide.
Observers say the lack of details and elusiveness of economic and social rights might have been intentional — an effort to allow future legislation to serve the interests of those in power.
“Constitutions are still tailored to suit the people in power as in the past. The economic and social rights approved by the committee are not much different from those contained in the old 1971 Constitution, as far as content is concerned. The state’s role toward society was not defined in clear objectives, as was expected for a post-revolution constitution,” says Mona Ezzat, a leading member at the New Woman Foundation who spoke about the Islamist domination over the assembly.
For her, the danger lies in the potential Islamist domination in the upcoming parliamentary elections, which would further empower these groups to legislate according to a constitution tailored to their taste.
Constituent Assembly spokesperson Wahid Abdel Meguid told Dream satellite channel that political and civil rights were given more attention in the draft in the belief that an optimal political environment will automatically reflect on better economic and social conditions. Abdel Meguid admitted that Islamist viewpoints had been taken into consideration while drafting some articles.
But Abdel Meguid wrote last week in Al-Masry Al-Youm that the current regime’s disregard for socioeconomic issues and their reaction to the question of the budget deficit with no real understanding of the notion of social justice is growing into an alarming issue. He also charged the Muslim Brotherhood with having no robust economic propositions beyond its charity-oriented approach, which is far from able to provide radical solutions.
Coming from Abdel Meguid — who has been close to the Brotherhood, earning positions as head of its electoral bloc in the 2011 parliamentary elections and Constituent Assembly spokesperson — this has raised alarms.
Ezzat says religion had been decisively forced as a reference to major social issues such as women’s rights.
“There are suspicions around that reference, which might be interpreted in favor of authority and hardline groups,” she says.
But Edward Ghaleb, head of the assembly’s Freedoms and Public Duties Committee, stresses that all segments of society participated in the debate on those articles. He says Abdel Meguid was expressing his personal view, noting that drafters had not given more attention to any article at the expense of another.
Ghaleb says drafters are more focused on laying out basic principles than delving into details that can be set out in laws issued later.
Article 27 of the draft stipulates that every citizen has the right to quality education, adding that education is compulsory at the primary level and free of charge at all levels. The state may be committed to providing primary education for illiterate adults and to supervise all sorts of education at all levels, according to the article.
It also obliges public and private educational institutions to follow the state’s educational strategy and objectives.
The second part of the article is related to the state’s supervision on all kinds of education. The concept was not in the 1971 Constitution and grants the state more control over the educational process.
Education expert Kamal Moghith says the article fails to handle the role of schools in detail and gives more focus to the centralization of the educational process.
“The Brotherhood is planning to change the syllabuses. Several teachers and headmasters at public schools are affiliated to the Brotherhood. The group will impose the legislation in order to oblige educational institutions to follow the state’s plans, and if they do not, they will be deactivated,” he says.
Ghaleb stresses that schools’ role is not to be determined by the constitution, which he says obliges the state to educate society and thus requires legislation achieve success in that respect.
But Motaz Atallah, who researches education issues at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, sees the importance of including the state’s commitment to improving the quality of education in the constitution.
He says the National Authority for Education Quality, part of the Education Ministry, is supposed to supervise the quality of school curricula.
“But it has not been active and its objectives not clear, and that’s why it is not mentioned in the constitution. This limits the state’s responsibility to servicing a large sector of society, while knowing the curricula are weak,” he says.
Atallah argues that not allocating for proper supervision in the constitution could be a way for the government to not spend on improving services.
Article 32 allocates citizens the right to free access to public healthcare. The article renews the state’s responsibility for granting people healthcare and insurance in a unified system, under the authority and supervision of the state, which monitors all health-related procedures and institutions.
The state is also obliged to give space to civil society to play a role in supporting the health system.
Heba Ismail, a medic and one of the activists behind establishing an independent doctors syndicate, says the article doesn’t specify the question of affordability because 40 percent of Egyptians live under the poverty line.
“We have to understand what’s meant by a unified health system. We don’t see in detail who can be granted healthcare, especially since in the last 10 years, there were several draft laws for health insurance — none of which provided for full healthcare for debilitating diseases,” she says.
Article 36 requires the state to adopt all legislative and executive measures to entrench male-female equality in political, cultural, economic, social and other fields, in line with Sharia. It also says the state may provide maternity and childhood services for free, ensure social protection for women and guarantee women’s work and family duties do not overlap.
Ezzat thinks the article is too loose and fails to explain how the state can ensure women get their financial rights and enjoy maternity services that have long been in need of reform.
“Who will determine on the reference to Islamic Sharia? Is it Al-Azhar? Or is it other unknown bodies? And if Al-Azhar does, there are fears it will tilt from its moderate policy in favor of other Islamist currents. Women-related articles subject to Islamic interpretation should have been named,” Ezzat says.
Manal al-Tiby, who represented the Nubian community on the assembly, resigned last month to protest the cancellation of an article that had set a minimum age for women to get married and criminalized trafficking of female minors. In press statements following her resignation, Tiby said Islamists refused to approve legislation setting a minimum age for marriage.
She denied that 25 percent of assembly members represent the secular current.
“Rather than relying on the president or assembly members to recognize women’s rights, we’d better depend on social opposition,” she said.
With labor protests sweeping the country across different sectors, Article 19 of the proposed document stipulates that the formation of syndicates, cooperatives and unions is protected by the law, which grants these bodies a legal personality.
It says the law should regulate their establishment on a democratic basis in a way that helps them achieve efficiency, protects their rights and ensures their engagement in serving society. Those entities may only be dissolved by a court ruling.
The content of the article does not differ much from that contained in the 1971 Constitution, which was followed by Law 35/1976. Still in force, that law largely imposes restrictions on union freedoms.
But Hany Samir, a leader at the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, predicts that those in power will maintain the same scenario.
“The article never tackles the fate of independent trade unions. Soon a new law on trade union freedoms will be issued by Manpower Minister Khaled al-Azhary, a member of the Brotherhood, the group that had earlier proposed a bill to the dissolved Parliament banning the establishment of independent unions,” Samir says.
“That is what activists fear — that articles of the constitution might not be definite enough and that they might be manipulated by the rulers to keep their rule stable.”
Ghaleb describes this argument as unfounded and inaccurate, contending that the state, or the elected Parliament, should eventually approve a law regulating union activity.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.