Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Following preliminary reports that 97.7 percent of Egyptian voters voted “yes” in the constitution referendum earlier this week, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with veteran Egyptian politician Amr Moussa, who chaired the 50-member constitution-drafting committee.
In the first part of a two-part interview, Moussa hailed the constitution, calling it the “constitution of the Third Republic,” which he described as “a civil and modern state in which the rights and freedoms of all citizens parallel the best democratic constitutions in the world.”
Moussa, who has variously served as Egypt’s foreign minister and secretary-general of the Arab League, also spoke about prospective amendments to the constitution, including the restoration of the Egyptian Senate. He spoke in detail about Egypt’s new constitution, public response to the referendum, and his hopes for the future of the country.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The constitution referendum represented a pivotal moment for Egypt. The elections required months of preparation by the organizing committee. What feelings and comments can you share on about the process?
Amr Moussa: I voted on the first morning of the referendum and talked with many people about the situation and about voter turnout. It is clear that the momentum regarding participation in the referendum came from the widespread belief that voting is the least that each citizen can do to contribute to the process of rebuilding Egypt. Turnout was very high even though some attempted to hinder participation, and I saw polling stations filled with long lines of people waiting to cast their votes. There was a widespread sense of enthusiasm to queue up at polling centers, and a general desire to approve the constitution.
Q: Do you think that ordinary Egyptians have read all the constitution’s articles, and did they understand all the complex decisions taken?
Yes. The most important observation is that all segments of society were interested in the constitution to an unprecedented degree. This phenomenon was reflected in the dynamic discussions and questions raised about the constitution. I toured many of the provinces and large numbers of people turned out to participate in the debate and offer some critiques. Enthusiasm for the constitution was exceptional, and we distributed as many as 2 or 3 million copies of the text. Many people helped spread the word . . . Television and radio programs as well as seminars were organized around the topic, and we observed large amounts of interest even among farmers living in rural areas, as the constitution gave them certain specific rights.
These are not just electoral texts—they mean additional income for farmers, workers and the disabled. This is actually the first time that material relating to the disabled has been legislated in Egypt. The elderly, the unemployed and the poor were all included in the constitution and provided with appropriate rights and benefits.
The constitution also dealt in detail with education, healthcare, agriculture, industry, tourism and so on; even fisherman have a provision in the constitution. These articles served to increase interest among all groups mentioned. If you were a fisherman, for example, you would also be interested in the articles regarding education because they affect your children, and health care as this affects your entire family.
The fact is that preparing the constitution was not just a matter of widespread enthusiasm or careful research, but also proved to be an educational experience. I imagine that from now on, any breaches of the constitution will not be tolerated.
Local government forms a very important part of the constitution. We have discussed decentralization and the 54,000 available electoral seats at the state level spanning all village councils and local provinces. This is a great opportunity, and women and youth should take at least 25 percent of those seats each. Laborers should take 50 percent as well.
When these ratios overlap, it means that a large proportion of women, young people and Christians will serve in public office. A proportion of these seats are designated for people with disabilities in the constitution as well.
Q: Did the Muslim Brotherhood say that equality between men and women in the constitution was a violation of Shari’a law?
They say, according to their ill-intentioned interpretation, that equality means that women will have the right to marry four men and be granted the same inheritance rights as men, etc. In reality, equality between men and women is presented in the framework of the rights enshrined in the constitution, and the principles of Shari’a law form the main source for legislation.
Their claims are incorrect, but the constitution requires the state to allow women to preside as judges.
Q: What about women assuming the presidency?
The question is open. The text mentions the “other party” to the president, namely his or her spouse, but does not specifically use the word “wife,” meaning that the president does not necessarily have to be a man.
Q: What about the issue of women’s empowerment in the House of Representatives?
Women should take up to 25 percent of seats in local governments. We must work with women together on the issue of elections, even if the process fails several times. I call on women to take on the process of making their representation a reality by working with voters.
Q: How do you describe this constitution? Is it the constitution of the Second Republic, or the Third?
Q: How come?
Because the Second Republic, the Brotherhood Republic under former president Mohamed Mursi, was short-lived. The Third Republic is the republic of the constitution, and we all know this.
Q: What can you tell us about the Third Republic, which is now being formed under the new constitution?
It is a democratic republic, a civil and modern state in which the rights and freedoms of all citizens parallel the best democratic constitutions in the world.
Q: What about the Constitution of 1923?
Of course, the Constitution of 1923 was a constitution of the early 20th century, and the current one was written in the context of the 21st century. We have translated the freedoms from the Constitution of 1923 into a modern context, focusing on what we hope to see in Egypt’s future.
Q: Why did you choose to include so many details in the latest constitution?
Egypt is suffering from huge imbalances. If the country were in a normal, healthy condition we would not require all of these details. The constitution stresses that government spending on primary/secondary and higher education should reach 4 percent and 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) respectively. One percent of GDP is allocated to scientific research and 3 percent to health care. These are important distinctions to make, and if things were going normally in Egypt, we would not have had to outline these figures.
Q: Didn’t you once say that you felt that the Shura Council should continue to exist?
No, that is not true. I prefer that we reinstitute the Senate, not the Shura Council, and restore its parliamentary powers. The Senate played a large role in Egyptian politics before 1952, when parliamentary democracy was suspended.
Throughout Egypt’s history, when drafts of Egyptian civil law were discussed, they were passed by the House of Representatives in a matter of 10 days, while the Senate took six months to debate the text article by article, summoning experts from abroad. Even today, when judges make rulings, they still refer to the articles, annotations and recordings of past Senate proceedings. For 70 years the Senate continued to have a very significant role in political life. Major issues were discussed by this body, and today we are in need of a similar institution to deal with the labyrinth of laws that have been passed over the past 60 years, many of them overlapping and contradictory. We must reconsider them. Whose responsibility is this? The Council must be vigilant, and because of this I pushed for the restoration of the Senate body in accordance with democratic institutions. When we raised the issue of unicameral or bicameral legislature in discussions with the Committee of Fifty, the unicameral idea won out.
Q: In the past, there was a class requirement for the Senate. Will this be abolished in future Senates?
The Pashas were members of the House of Representatives, along with tribal leaders and mayors, but as for the Senate, different standards existed regarding age and education. We need similar regulations today. You must have a certain degree in order to become a member of the Senate, so that the discussion might reach a certain level. This will complement the grassroots level of the House of Representatives, which is equally important.
Q: Is the general belief that this constitution will be permanent, or could it be amended in the coming months?
It is a permanent constitution, but will be subject to modifications until it properly expresses the requirements of our age. I expect that the first amendment will be in favor of the establishment of a Senate. I expect that in the future, Egypt will need other amendments as well. I do not see any benefit to changing the constitution itself, but some of its articles may be modified, like that of the United States’ Constitution.
Q: Forming a constitution is a key step in the transitional phase. What is your vision for the next stage?
The next step is to elect a president and parliament. The third step is to end the transitional period and work towards stability. The president will serve for four years and members of the House of Representatives will serve for five years, so that the next stage is one of stability.
I’m very optimistic and think that this is a good opportunity for Egypt to address the mishaps of the past.
This is the first part of an abridged interview originally conducted in Arabic. The second part, in which Amr Moussa discusses the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections and the chances of a Sisi presidential bid, will be published tomorrow.