Middle East

Taking the Charter to Cairo: Now or Never

Adam Moscoe

As we celebrate the 30th birthday of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadians need not look too far to find examples of how our Charter has been a source of guidance for nations around the world seeking to better enshrine inalienable human rights in their respective constitutions. From Hong Kong to South Africa and from Israel to New Zealand, our Charter has been so widely emulated and lauded that even American scholars are calling Canada “the new constitutional superpower.” In the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” in Egypt, one would think Canada – a country with considerable success as a multicultural salad – could play a significant role in assisting Egypt with the constitutional development process. We haven’t yet, but I believe we can. First I’ll briefly examine the current landscape and then make the case for Canada and our Charter as a model for the New Egypt.

From Tahrir Square to the drawing table

While the international community has understandably shifted its focus from post-Mubarak Egypt to the ongoing killings in Syria, those who yearn for true freedom and democracy in the Middle East should remain attentive to the repercussions of the Tahrir Square revolution. After the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took control from Hosni Mubarak and ruled with arguably greater ruthlessness than the old dictator himself – indeed, attacking protestors, banning legitimate NGOs, and throwing bloggers like Maikel Nabil into jail for mere criticism of the military – we now have an Islamic-dominated parliament voted in by a population characterized by a 30% average illiteracy rate. Within Egypt and throughout the diaspora, there is concern that the chants of Tahrir Square have led to a new Egypt guided not by inclusiveness and respect for universal human rights, but rather by a radical agenda based in Shari’a law. Every move is being heavily scrutinized – like last week’s baffling announcement of proposed legislation to permit men to have “farewell sex” with their wives up to six hours post-mortem.

We hear the restless voices of secular, gay, Christian and Jewish Egyptian nationals wondering if they will have a place in the new Egypt. Meet Omar Sharif Jr. The namesake of his legendary grandfather – of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame – Omar himself is an actor and model who has appeared on the Oscars. He recently came out as gay and Jewish in an op-ed for The Advocate magazine. Omar, who has already had fatwas issued against him, writes:

“I challenge each of the parties elected to parliament to speak out, on the record, as to where they stand on respect for the rights of all Egyptians, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or political belief. Do religious parties speak of moderation now only to consolidate power? Show us that your true intent is not to gradually eradicate the few civil liberties and safeguards that we currently have protected by convention, if not constitution.”

Meanwhile on the rhetorical front, members of the prominent Freedom and Justice Party (an outfit of the Muslim Brotherhood) never tire of the following refrain: “We respect international obligations, period.” The old Egypt ratified the legally-binding International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as other UN treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The new Egypt is required to integrate the core tenets of all these treaties into its constitution – paying particular attention to redefining the powers of the president.

So how has the process been going? Not great.

Earlier this month, domestic courts suspended a 100-member committee set up to draft the constitution since it was too heavily dominated by lawmakers affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and was therefore not representative of Egyptian society. No women, no Coptic Christians. In a slap in the face to impartiality, the committee was headed by the same man currently serving as speaker of the Parliament! With this recent setback from the courts, Egypt’s new President will be elected before the constitution is reformed. This means the President-Elect will technically inherit the same powers held by Mubarak and will have disproportionate control over the timelines and content of the new constitution.

Saluting the Charter

It is these hurdles that have impeded Canada from launching a constitutional assistance initiative in Egypt – not to mention Prime Minister Harper’s distaste for reviving Liberal/liberal notions of Canada as a bridge-builder and mentor, let alone his flippant attitude to the Charter and its birthday. A planned trip for parliamentarians was recently cancelled. Yet our constitution and particularly our Charter – both in content and in the process by which it evolved – can serve as a model to Cairo.

As law professor Adam Dodek pointed out recently in the National Post, the strength of our Charter lies in its ability to guarantee rights to “every person” – with a general limitations clause so as not to remove necessary judicial discretion – while “reflecting Canada’s struggle with the challenges of a modern multicultural and multilingual society.” The Charter bears in mind the needs of minority and indigenous groups – who were consulted in the drafting of the Charter. While Europe grapples with failed multiculturalism policies, Canada is viewed as a model for managing diversity. Moreover, Dodek notes the Charter “draws strength from a universalist conception of human rights rather than any particular Canadian notion of rights” and it is thus easily transferrable from Canada to faraway lands like New Zealand and South Africa.

So, while ‘Charter at 30’ celebrations were muted as best – my personal highlight was a kids’ flashmob steps away from Parliament Hill with guests Bob Rae and Irwin Cotler – we can be confident that our Charter remains relevant and revolutionary. It could be a big help to Egypt and perhaps – next up – to Syria. The question is simply – are Canadians ready to air out our Charter in the marketplace of ideas for building a more free Middle East?