Different times, different place
After 5,000 years it is time to admit that Egypt has changed. So why not a new constitution, asks Abdel-Moneim Said*
That, following dialogue with other parties, the National Democratic Party (NDP) has finally agreed, in principle at least, to a revision of the constitution, is a significant shift of position.
Many commentators have pointed out that there is nothing sacred about constitutions, and that many countries change theirs with alarming frequency. This is not a particularly helpful point to make. Prudence and temperance, as Plato noted, are admirable political virtues.
If we are to change the constitution then we need to agree on exactly what it is we hope to achieve. The constitution, as the principal document of the state, must be compatible with the times. It has to sponsor good governance, boost progress, enhance justice and provide all citizens with freedom of choice and the opportunity to participate.
Changing the constitution is no easy task. Most political parties, civil society groups and media analysts tend to circumvent the inherent difficulties by speaking not of change but of amendment, usually referring to the article concerning the election of the president. While obviously important, and central to the last constitutional amendment in 1979, one article does not a constitution make. Nor should we be focussing on a single article concerning the transfer of power when the country's entire political process is moribund. To state it bluntly, the focus should not be on how to elect a president and how long to allow him/her to stay in office. Rather, we should be concentrating on the manner in which the president runs the country, and on the powers invested in the office of the presidency by the constitution.
It will not be the first time Egypt has dealt with such issues. It did so when the modern state was formed in 1922, when the constitution was written in 1923, when the system changed from a monarchy to a republic in 1953 and when the revolutionary legitimacy embodied in the provisional constitutions of 1958 and 1964 was abandoned in favour of the constitutional legitimacy in 1971. The present generation of politicians must not abandon their duty and shy away from assuming such a difficult task, however fraught its legal and political complexities.
It is commonly said, mostly in advanced democracies, that a constitution is nothing but a package of checks and balances that emerged over years of debate and dialogue. Such a view, in Egypt at least, is a luxury we cannot afford. After all, we know next to nothing about the debates that undoubtedly went on between the founding fathers of the modern Egyptian state in connection with the 1923 constitution, not least because the Egyptian national movement has dismissed that constitution out of hand as one written under occupation. And there is little information available on the debates that took place with regard to latter constitutions.
What must be acknowledged is that the manner of electing the president and the powers in the office, as defined by the 1971 constitution, are a result of the centralism that has characterised the Egyptian state since Mena unified the northern and southern parts of the country 5,000 years ago. The quest for centralism and national homogeneity has been a recurrent theme of state policy since then, though it should be noted that, while the state promoted links between its various parts for much of its history those parts also enjoyed a measure of independence, including the right to name local deities.
Those who fear that changing the constitution will open the doors to fragmentation and foreign intervention are not just defending the status quo but making a legitimate point. Historically, the loss of central control was associated with either religious, economic or foreign pressure. (Egypt may well be the oldest state, but for half of its known history it was ruled by non-Egyptians.) What they forget, however, is that Egypt is no longer an agriculture state with a power structure based on irrigation. Industry and services, not agriculture, comprise the greater part of Egypt's national economy. The urban population is almost the same as the rural. And while agriculture may function under a strict hierarchy, with a central authority making decisions which are then implemented, industry and services require a horizontal distribution of power, with authority shared and everyone involved in the market economy.
The focus on industry and services over the past five decades has completely altered patterns of production and though, in the last 20 years the area of arable land has grown significantly, the balance has tipped, perhaps irredeemably, towards industry.
Meanwhile, changes in Egypt's geographical and demographical structure mean that for the first time in history the population is moving away from the Nile. Egyptian centralism emerged in order to regulate relations between rulers and subjects around the banks of the river. Egypt's inhabited area, until very recently, did not exceed three per cent of its land surface. This is no longer true. In the mid-19th century the Suez Canal was dug and an entire settlement came into being that did not depend on the Nile for its livelihood. At present, the canal and its thriving cities of Suez, Port Said and Ismailia account for a respectable share of the national income. And according to human development reports the inhabitants of the Suez Canal area are the richest, best educated and healthiest Egyptians.
The change that has taken place over the past two decades is one for which we long aspired. Several attempts were made in the past to lure part of the population away from the crowded river banks, to Modiriyat Al-Tahrir and Al- Salhiya. These efforts, on the part of the centralised state all failed. Then things changed. A totally new Egypt sprang up on the coasts of Sinai, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
Prudence and temperance, rather than hasty partial measures, must dictate how we reconsider our laws. And when this happens history will note that it was President Mubarak who established the perimeters within which any revision of the Egyptian constitution should occur. Revision may not be an exciting exercise but in a changing country it is a necessary one.
Egypt is no longer a country with a majority of labourers and farmers -- and even labourers and farmers do not do the same things they used to do. Egypt is no longer a country huddled along the banks of the Nile but one where people live from coast to coast, from river to valley. When a country changes, its mode of government must surely follow. There was a time when the central state guaranteed security through the village chief and production through the irrigation engineer. Now the state is in charge of education, health, transport, information, tourism and banking. Egypt had a population of 2.5 million people of whom one per cent were literate at the turn of the 19th century. It had 10 million people of whom two per cent were literate at the turn of the 20th century. Now it has a population of 70 million people of whom two-thirds have had some form of formal education.
Egypt has changed and so has its people. It is no longer sensible to maintain the balance between centralism and decentralism that existed centuries ago. And this is only one example of the many balances that will have to be reconsidered when the constitution is revamped.
* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.