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Advocacy Group Criticizes Draft Egyptian Constitution

CAIRO—The advocacy group Human Rights Watch on Monday criticized the latest draft of Egypt's new constitution as offering inadequate protections for minorities and personal freedoms.

The 2,700-word complaint comes one day before a court is expected to rule on the constituent assembly's legitimacy. The committee may meet the same fate as the parliament that nominated it—when a high court ruled in May that it was unconstitutional.

The assembly has been hobbled by an ideological divide between secular-minded delegates and Islamists.

The New York based organization urged members of the 100-seat assembly to amend the Sept. 27 draft document that would entrust religious institutions to vet legislation based on Islamic law, condition women's rights on religious interpretation, exclude language meant to criminalize human trafficking and allow only a narrow definition of police torture. Some delegates expect the document to be completed as soon as next week.

The organization did praise the draft constitution's restrictions on so-called state-security courts and military tribunals for civilians. Outrage over such judicial procedures helped spark Egypt's revolution early last year.

Secular-leaning delegates say ultraconservative Salafi Islamists have taken a harder line in assembly negotiations over the past few weeks, while the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood has become less vocal. The Salafis are competing with Brotherhood delegates for the same conservative constituency in parliamentary elections set to take place two months after the constitution is complete, said Heba Morayef, a researcher for HRW in Egypt.

She said she was most surprised by the draft document's language on police torture—something Islamists, who make up half of the assembly's membership, had suffered.

As it stands, the draft forbids "physical or psychological harm"—language that is less restrictive than the criminalization of "torture," said HRW's letter.

Also, instead of an outright prohibition on the trafficking of women and children, Salafi delegates opted for a more general ban on "violations of women's and children's rights," said Ms. Morayef.

One Salafi delegate told television audiences last month that a direct prohibition against trafficking would "tarnish Egypt's image abroad" and could force Egyptian law to adhere to international norms against child marriages. Salafi delegates have pushed for children to get married as young as 9 or 10 years old, according to HRW.

Nadar Al Bakkar, a spokesman for the Salafi Nour Party and a member of the constituent assembly, said the party's position on child marriage is consistent with those of the Egyptian public, particularly those in rural regions still governed by tribal traditions. He said HRW misinterpreted the Safafis' stance on women's rights and the role of Sharia law.

The human-rights group's letter also criticized a provision backed by Salafi delegates that would give Al Azhar—a Cairo-based university and one of the oldest religious learning institutions in the world—oversight over Egyptian legislation.

Another provision would guarantee legal equality between men and women only when legislation doesn't violate "the rulings of Islamic Sharia" — vague language the group said "would open the door to further regression in women's rights."

Mr. Bakkar and other Islamist delegates say Sharia law holds men and women to different standards, but Mr. Bakkar argued that such inequality is mainly the province of inheritance law that awards brothers a greater share of a parent's estate.

Al Azhar would pass judgment on legislation only if Egypt's supreme court requests the university's counsel in legal disputes, he said.

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