Egyptians start today a two-day referendum on the country’s second charter in just 13 months. The previous charter, backed by deposed President Mohamed Morsi, was approved in December 2012 and was as short-lived as his one-year tenure.
Both documents were based on the 1971 constitution, which was in force for decades until the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak. They share many similarities, but also some key differences, outlined below.
Al-Azhar: The 2012 constitution created a legislative role for Al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s preeminent theological institution, requiring lawmakers to “consult [it] in matters pertaining to Islamic law.” The 2013 constitution removes this provision.
Defence minister: Both constitutions require the defence minister to be a military officer, but the 2013 constitution requires that his nomination be approved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. That provision will expire after two presidential terms, or eight years.
Electoral quotas: The 2012 constitution mandated that “farmers and workers” have at least 50 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament. The 2013 constitution waters down this provision, granting them only “appropriate representation… in the manner specified by law.” It also requires a similarly vague quota for youth, Christians, and disabled people.
Human trafficking: The 2013 constitution, for the first time, forbids “sex trafficking and other forms of human trafficking.”
Insulting religion: The 2013 constitution removes an article making it a crime to “insult any messengers or prophets.”
International treaties: The 2013 constitution commits the government to “agreements, covenants and international conventions of human rights” that have been ratified, granting them the force of law. This provision has potentially wide-ranging implications for human rights.
Islamic law: Both constitutions state that “the principles of shari’a [Islamic law] are the principal source of legislation.” The 2013 charter, however, eliminates an article which sought to define the “principles of shari’a,” language which many feared would be used to impose a specific vision of Islamic law.
Judiciary: The 2012 constitution allowed the president to appoint the prosecutor-general. In the 2013 charter, that responsibility is shifted to the Supreme Judicial Council.
Military budget: Both constitutions effectively shield the military budget from legislative oversight: The National Defence Council, not lawmakers, debate its contents.
Military trials: The 2012 constitution allowed civilians to face military courts for crimes that “harm the armed forces.” The 2013 charter outlines a more specific set of offences, but legal experts say the more detailed wording will have little practical impact. In a televised interview last month, General Medhat Radwan Ghazi, the head of military justice, said that civilians could face military courts for arguing with the employees of army-owned gas stations.
Police: The 2013 constitution creates a new Supreme Police Council which must be “consulted in any laws pertaining to it,” effectively giving the interior ministry a veto over any laws reforming the police.
Political system: The 2013 charter makes a number of changes to the political system. It allows parliament to withdraw confidence from the president, and to force early elections by a two-thirds majority. It stipulates that the president, not the prime minister, will appoint several powerful ministers: defence, foreign affairs, interior and justice.
Religious parties: The 2013 constitution explicitly forbids the establishment of political parties “formed on the basis of religion.”
Shura Council: The 2013 constitution eliminates the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament.
Torture: The 2012 constitution said that Egyptians who are arrested or otherwise detained “must not be tortured.” The 2013 constitution goes further, expressly stating that “all forms of torture are a crime with no statute of limitations.”
Women’s rights: The preamble to the 2012 constitution called women “the sisters of men.” The 2013 charter is more explicit, stating that women are equal to men, and committing the state to “the protection of women against all forms of violence.”