What Egypt’s New Constitution Tells Us About Political Transition

Egypt_VotingBy Corri Zoli & Courtney Schuster

(Re-Published from Tufts University Fletcher Forum of World Affairs) There is no shortage of skepticism—or even downright cynicism—about Egypt’s new constitution, passed by a referendum in January 2014. Egyptian constitutional scholar Nathan Brown captures a general unease by calling the latest document—the third constitution in three years—a “train wreck.” However, a closer reading of the new constitution suggests this cynicism is not entirely justified. The new constitution omits a controversial article (Article 219) that was present in the previous 2012 constitution and provided a narrow and exclusive definition of Shari’a law. While a constitution is only one part of a state’s actual governance, omission of Article 219 in the latest constitution may indicate that the Egyptian government is shifting to a more pluralistic future.

Why was this seemingly benign article so controversial, and what does its elimination mean for the future of Egypt?  Clark Lombardi and Nathan Brown interpret Article 219 as reading: “The principles of the Islamic Shari’a include its adilla kulliya (general evidence), qawa`id usuli (foundational rules), and qawa`id fiqhiyya (rules of jurisprudence), and the sources considered (or established) by the Sunni madhhabs (or premodern schools of legal method).” During the 2012 constitutional process, Egyptians activists and scholars alike lamented that the Islamist language in Article 219 reflected a hopelessly biased constitutional drafting process.

Prior to the 2012 constitution, all of Egypt’s previous constitutions simply held that principles of Islamic law are the main source of legislation. Specifically, they stated, “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language. The principles of Islamic Shari’a are the principal source of legislation.” The 2012 constitution, by contrast, defined these principles of Islamic Shari’a in Article 219. That definition enumerated the laws of Shari’a as interpreted by the conservative Salafis who instituted it, thereby excluding other groups’ interpretations …

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Corri Zoli is an INSCT Assistant Research Professor. Courtney Schuster is an INSCT Research Assistant and a 2013 graduate of the Syracuse University College of Law.