Acting today to secure a democratic future
Political parties and a just constitutional order in Egypt must be renewed and defended, for which action is needed now, writes Dina Shehata*
The results of the 2005 parliamentary elections have underscored the weakness of the Egyptian secular opposition and have confirmed the belief that the Muslim Brotherhood constitutes the only organised alternative to the existing regime. As a result, the United States and Europe have begun to reassess their commitment to democratisation in Egypt and the region as a whole and Egyptian reformers have begun to fear that a genuine democratic opening might pose a real threat to the principle of equal citizenship and to the civic nature of the state. The existing political landscape which pits the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) against Islamists in a political vacuum populated by weak and fragmented secular groups poses real challenges to the prospects of democratisation in Egypt; challenges which must be overcome if Egypt is to successfully make an exit from five decades of authoritarian rule. Three challenges in particular must be addressed in the coming period to ensure that Egypt is able make a safe and peaceful transition to democracy: reconstituting political society; moderating the Islamist opposition; and finally creating institutional guarantees to protect the constitutional order.
The reconstitution of Egyptian political society will require first and foremost the rehabilitation of political parties. Since the elections there has been much talk among opposition elites about the need to create new liberal and leftist political parties/movements to substitute for existing parties that have become largely defunct. Meetings are already underway among elites on the left and the right of the secular spectrum to discuss means of reviving their respective movements. However, in light of existing legal and structural constraints on the activities of political parties, the creation of new political parties is not likely to make a major difference. A new political parties law that eases restrictions on the creation of political parties and their activities and a new electoral system are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the rehabilitation of political parties in Egypt. Such measures do not address the fundamental problem that inhibits the emergence of viable parties, namely the schism that exists currently between political elites and "the street." The emergence of viable political parties requires dismantling the corporatist structures created by Nasser and his successors which have de-linked political parties from their potential constituencies, namely student and labour unions, business associations, intellectuals, churches and mosques, etc. One cannot envision a viable leftist movement that is unable to harness the support of university students, intellectuals and workers. Similarly, one cannot envision a viable liberal movement that cannot harness the support of women, Copts and the middle class. As long as most of these groups remain locked within the framework of state-controlled corporatist structures (the Coptic Church, Al-Azhar, the General Federation of Labour Unions, etc), the emergence of viable political parties will remain a remote possibility. Encouraging the growth of moderate tendencies within the Islamist movement is a second precondition for a smooth transition to democracy. Moderation has often been defined as the rejection of violence. However, it has become apparent that the Muslim Brotherhood needs to do much more than reject violence in order to be accepted as a genuinely inclusive political movement.
Specifically, the Brotherhood needs to demonstrate its commitment to the principles of equal citizenship: equality irrespective of gender or religion, and to a civic state, the separation of religious and political institutions. Two principal strategies will help produce such an outcome: the growth of a strong secular opposition via means already discussed above, and the legalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Allowing the Brotherhood to act as a legal entity will encourage it to become less secretive about its recruitment and socialisation techniques and will place its activities under greater public scrutiny, which should encourage it to adopt a more centrist discourse. Moreover, by removing the state of siege under which the movement has operated for at least five decades, the emphasis on internal unity and discipline within the movement is likely to dissipate. Disagreements between the various factions/generations within the movement are likely to assume a more open character. Such an outcome might lead to the emergence of more moderate elements in the movement, which may in turn form their own parties as happened with the Justice and Development parties in Turkey and in Morocco. The final precondition for ensuring a smooth transition to democracy is the creation of institutional guarantees to protect the constitutional order. However, that condition assumes that a constitutional order worthy of protecting already exists! Given the deeply flawed existing constitutional order, it is difficult to imagine that any new government will have difficultly making a case for the need to change it. This makes drafting a new constitution before it is too late all the more necessary. Such a constitution must clearly assert the principle of equal citizenship and the civic nature of the state. It must ensure a clear separation of powers and institute strong checks and balances that will limit the power of any new government to challenge the constitutional order. Finally, and most importantly, a new constitution must reflect national consensus and enjoy popular legitimacy.
Several institutional arrangements are possible to help protect the sanctity of the constitution. A strong and independent constitutional court that will act as the ultimate authority on constitutional matters is a particularly fitting mechanism for Egypt, which already has a strong and proactive Supreme Constitutional Court. The establishment of a National Security Council which acts as a guardian of the constitution and which has veto powers over the decisions of the government is another option that has worked successfully in Turkey.
Of course, the real obstacle standing in the face of progress on all these fronts is the continued resistance of the government to real and comprehensive reform. However, the longer the government resists real reform, the greater the chances that Egypt might someday in the not too distant future find itself with a new religiously-based government, a weak secular opposition and fragile institutional and constitutional guarantees.
Time is running short and an era is drawing to a close. The character of the new era will be largely determined by steps taken to ensure that a constitutional order based on equality and civic rights is protected; steps that should begin now, before it is too late.
* The writer is a research fellow at Al-Ahram centre for Political and Strategic Studies.