Let us bray
Cosmetic changes or a tacit acknowledgment of new realities? The pundits debate the ramification of constitutional reform, writes Gamal Nkrumah
Into the bin went the egalitarian certainties of the socialist framework promulgated in the 1960s. It established social responsibility, but that was before privatisation, economic liberalisation, democratisation and good governance. A new political dispensation is at hand. Or so argues the government and defenders of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Realpolitik trumped socialism.
Political commentators mostly concurred that the proposed constitutional changes are meant to confirm, officially sanction and legitimise the new political realities and ideological directives that hold sway in Egypt today. "The first question pertains to the philosophical guidelines that govern the constitution," head of Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies Abdel-Moneim Said wrote in the 8 January issue of Al-Ahram. "The second question concerns what is known in constitutional law as checks and balances," he added. He noted that the new changes more clearly separate the powers and responsibilities of the president from those of the prime minister -- the latter enjoying a larger measure of independence from the presidency. Said also stressed the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.
"The third question concerns Article 88 which reinforces the independence of the judiciary and especially regarding its supervision of parliamentary and presidential elections. The main point to take into account is the credibility of the electoral process," Said pointed out. He concluded by questioning why Article 77, which confers on the president the power to promulgate legislative decrees irrespective of the People's Assembly's wishes and desires, is not to be touched. We can now place constitutional change in a historical context, he concluded.
The detractors of the ruling party think otherwise. Indeed, on the opposite page of the very same issue of Al-Ahram, Mohamed El-Sayed Said concluded a sceptical opinion piece by emphasising the fact that the defining characteristic of the 1971 constitution was that it gave the president "absolute and eternal powers". He stressed that the proposed constitutional changes do not interfere with or circumscribe these powers.
Some articles tell a story. Others focus on the moral of the story. Mohamed El-Sayed Said's is in this rather philosophical vein. Characteristically, he did not want to be quiet; he preferred to roar and bellow.
Pundits are currently trying to figure out which sections of the new constitution has ramifications for democratisation. The NDP's Policies Committee led by Gamal Mubarak came under fire from the opposition papers, but few pundits conceded that the government is incalculably aided by the divided nature of the opposition.
Much of the discussion in the press this week centred around Article 5 which bans the creation of political parties based on religion, race and lineage. Many see it as specifically targeting the Muslim Brotherhood.
This patrician view of political reform in Egypt was played out in the press this week. "I object to the use of the term constitutional amendments. What is happening is not an amendment of the constitution; rather it is the revision of the constitution in order to match the actual realities on the ground," noted El-Sayed Said.
The independent weekly Al-Qahira focussed on the intellectuals taking on constitutional reform. The intellectuals, the paper's front page banner trumpeted, warn that the draft constitutional reforms are a daring step forward, but the exercise lacks proper implementation and a specification of the direction of change.
"Egypt approached the New Year engulfed in the question of constitutional reform expected to be the top priority issue for at least the next three months," wrote columnist Wahid Abdel-Meguid in Al-Qahira. "The controversy surrounding constitutional change forces us to examine serious political issues... and in this respect, the year 2007 will be a repeat of the year 2005. Indeed, I was intrigued by my colleague Osama Saraya's description of 2005 as the longest year in history". Few places are less festive than the People's Assembly and the Shura Council, with the prospect of heated parliamentary debates over constitutional reform, the political analyst predicted.
The headline of Al-Wafd was anything but short and sweet and to the point. "The Committee of Human Rights presents parliament with conditions for political reform: two terms for the presidency and six months maximum period for the state of emergency. The system of proportional representation for elections, and the supervision of the independent judiciary is prerequisite". The basic pattern of this article by Mahmoud Ghallab was very sympathetic to the courage of the People's Assembly's Human Rights Committee.
Al-Masry Al-Yom 's 2 January issue, on the other hand, lashed out against the Muslim Brotherhood. "The Brotherhood restructures its East Cairo constituency and ostracises its representative at Al-Azhar" ran the front page headline.
In the same issue Mokhtar Nouh, the distinguished lawyer and former Muslim Brotherhood activist, was quoted as saying the constitutional changes would only lead to intensified totalitarianism. "The government tricked the opposition by dragging it into the last parliamentary elections, and has benefited from the presence of the Brothers [in parliament] in order to deliver a message to America," Nouh was quoted as saying. The NDP and the Mubaraks are still at the centre of Egyptian politics, he argued.
Al-Ahrar 's front page headline on 6 January criticised the import of contaminated blood by highly placed politicians. NDP MP Hani Sorour was accused of importing the contaminated blood which was bought by the Ministry of Health. That became a national scandal, and, the independent daily Al-Ahrar made much political capital out of it.
It was comic knockabout stuff -- but who's laughing now? Such scandals were sideshows to the main event in the news -- constitutional reform.