Marginalia: First things first
The prospect of holding parliamentary elections any time soon is getting less clear by the day. While on Monday evening the Egyptian prime minister announced that the elections would take place at the end of September, as scheduled, on Tuesday morning a source close to the ruling Higher Council for Armed Forces (HCAF) told the Wall Street Journal that elections would probably be postponed to the end of the year.
Later on Tuesday, however, a HCAF source told Reuters that "the matter of elections and election delays has not been determined yet. Such reports are speculation and guesswork." On Tuesday evening, Chief of Staff Sami Anan made a noncommittal statement following his meeting with representatives of 15 political parties: HCAF, he said, would stick to the constitutional declaration issued last March, which "fulfills requirements of the present stage." One party representative present in the meeting, however, told OnTV Channel that a military source told the meeting that elections would take place end of November.
Thus, while the guesswork continues, politicians and intellectuals are locked in a fierce battle regarding what comes first: constitution-making or elections? It's a battle that has been raging since last March when Egyptians voted overwhelmingly in favour of eight constitutional amendments stipulating that the parliamentary elections should precede the formation of a constitutive assembly to draft the constitution. The rationale then was that it was more democratic to have an elected body select members of the constitutive assembly rather than giving the military unchecked reign in the selection procedure.
Much water has flowed under the bridge since then, for while the people voted in March on amending eight articles of the 1971 constitution, HCAF later decided to annul the whole constitution, issuing instead a constitutional declaration of 62 articles. This gave rise to much debate about the legality of such a move, and those who voted no for the amendments, some 22 per cent, began to argue again for constitution- making first, something which naturally angered the one organised political force in favour of the yes vote, the Muslim Brotherhood.
It's been three months now since the constitutional declaration went into effect on 30 March, and the debate on what comes before what has consumed the better part of this period, so much so that one often feels the whole country is trapped in a time loop where one wakes up every morning to read the same chicken-or-egg argument all over again. All of a sudden the country, or at least its intelligentsia, have been thrust into a maze of constitutional argumentation strewn with all manner of technical terms such as "supra-constitutional articles", "entrenched clauses", "immutable principles" and " ewigkeitsklausel ", which we were told refers to the guarantee of perpetuity stated in Article 79 of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Put into simpler language, the no camp wanted the formulation of some perpetual articles in the constitution that could not be revoked, and that led to another battle regarding the civil state versus the Islamic framework the Brotherhood advocate. Again, a byzantine argument then ensued on whether the civil state in question was a secular state derived from the latin saecularis, or whether it was one that adopted laïcité, which some pointed out was only specific to the French Revolution.
As the controversy continued to rage, some sought a kind of compromise between the two interlocked viewpoints, and it was only in the middle of last month that a third option began to emerge, which was: 'let's stick to elections first, but postpone them for a couple of months.'
Those who argued for this compromise were quick to note that the constitutional declaration of 30 March stipulated that a call for elections had to be made within six months of the declaration. However, they argued that the call for elections was one thing, and convening them was another. Thus, they argued, it was the call that should take place by the end of September, while the elections themselves could be held at the end of the year.
But what will happen in these three months, people ask? Most probably they will be devoted to proposing the 'supra- constitutional articles' that the secular forces -- who call themselves civil rather than secular -- within the society want to enshrine in the new constitution. It's a process that has already begun, as two presidential hopefuls submitted for public discussion a draft of the articles they want enshrined in the new constitution.
There are also at least two other drafts of a similar document submitted by Al-Azhar and a group of intellectuals and businessmen calling themselves "the national council" and claiming to represent a wide majority. Until two days ago the latter group was collecting signatures on a petition asking for "constitution-making first" with the avowed aim of collecting 15 million signatures.
As one young man on Twitter noted, however, if they can collect 15 million signatures, why are they apprehensive about holding elections? Surely with such support, they could get a majority in parliament, thereby drafting whatever constitution they want. The argument is back where it started: elections or constitution-making first?
Meanwhile, the courts have been acquitting top officials of the Mubarak regime, and police officers charged with killing protestors have been released on bail, something that makes many young people feel that their uprising has been hijacked by political forces interlocked in cyclical argument. Two weeks ago a young medical student posted an anguished cri de coeur on his blog Mural under the title "The poor first, you bastards," in which he talked about the many poor people who sacrificed their lives to make this uprising succeed.
The post drew much attention in the mainstream media, with some agreeing that it was time to address questions of social justice rather than indulge in sophistry regarding this term or that; others disagreed. In any case the post generated a debate on the class content of the 25 January uprising.
For many people, the present writer included, this is a more pertinent debate, and it is one that could lead to a different polarization than the futile civil-versus-religious one which is at best divisive, and at worst conducive of civil strife.