A New Constitution for the People: An Interview with Egypt Constitutional Committee Member Houda Elsadda

Posted on 23 January 2014 by

Established in September 2013, the 50-committee was entrusted with the task of drafting Egypt’s new Constitution. Dr. Hoda Elsadda, one of the five women members of this committee, an academic and a human rights activist, reflects on the highlights and key learning from this most interesting and complex journey which is undoubtedly a landmark moment in the history of Egypt.

Houda Elsadda, Egypt Constitutional Committee Member

The 50-committee worked extensively during a period of three months and completed its draft on the 3d of December 2013. This period was intensive and included a series of external consultations with diverse interest groups, political parties and experts as well as internal discussions and debates which were concluded through voting.

According to Dr. El Sadda, the process was critical because legal and constitutional reforms have direct and long lasting implications and impacts on the rights of women and on citizens’ rights in general. As such, Elsadda insists that “people matter,” – who is at the table, engaging in discussions and decisions will have a decisive role on the final outcome of the process. In the case of the 50-committee, it was quite important that they were on the same page in relation to their understanding and commitment to women’s rights and to gender equality.

Furthermore, the constitutional drafting process revealed the importance of the availability of solid knowledge. In the case of Egypt, civil society had started to mobilize since 2011 to discuss the shape, content and spirit of the desired constitutions. The documents, analysis, and suggestions that came out from these processes were readily used to inform and inspire the 50-committee on such critical issues as women’s quota, criminalising violence against women, the role of state in intervening in the private and public sphere to protect women as well as the importance of legislation and mechanisms that protect women from all forms of discrimination.

Another key learning that Elsadda emphasized is the importance of alliance building. She made a strategic choice to position herself within the human rights advocates front whilst emphasizing that women rights are human rights. This has not only strengthened her credibility but also brought the support of advocates of minority rights, disability rights, workers, farmers, youth and others. This may have probably given the needed push to have a clear and unequivocal article in the Constitution which criminalises discrimination on any ground, as well as the subsequent establishment of a High Commission on anti-discrimination.

On a related note, the discussion and drafting of the Constitutional text was significant in breaking the silence on taboo issues. Elsadda considers that succeeding in having an article which commits the state to fight violence against women is a major achievement in a context where conservatism is rampant in the social and political spheres and not just amongst Islamist and religious circles.

The new Egyptian Constitution is indeed written in extraordinary circumstances of conflict and unrest. However, and notwithstanding disagreements and obvious gaps, gains were made and boundaries were pushed in relation to women’s human and citizenship rights.

At the time of writing this article, the national referendum on the Constitution was completed on the 14th and 15th of January. The overall turnout was 38.7% (compared to 33% for the 2012 Constitution backed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s ruling Freedom and Justice Party). 98% of those who voted cast a yes vote (compared to 66% for the 2012 Constitution backed by the Brotherhood).

The process was indeed intense and complex but perhaps the tipping point was the fact that despite the conflict, insecurity, and unrest, Egypt was not starting from ground zero but was using the learning, experience, strength and knowledge of a vibrant civil society.

The Muslim Brotherhood together with the international support they have received may have reduced the discourse on democracy to be solely that of the ballot. The Egyptian Constitutional Reform process has undoubtedly challenged the Muslim Brotherhood in winning the “ballotocracy” battle and reclaiming the legitimacy of street action and mobilisation. The next battles are indeed the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections. Elsadda and many other activists are indeed clear with regards to the new challenges posed by the military institution hence the importance of continuing the engagement in the political reform process – one that is based on an understanding of the universality of human and women’s rights and the importance of building democratic, transparent, and accountable state institutions.

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