Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2012
Issue No. 1081
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ayman El-Amir

Saving Egypt from itself

While it will be tempting to rule by the tyranny of the majority, Egypt's Islamists must understand that the constitution and elections are two different things, writes Ayman El-Amir*

Egyptian Islamist parties led by the Muslim Brotherhood have carried off the first post-revolution parliamentary elections with amazing ease. As the biggest single bloc in parliament they will have a major influence on selecting the 100-member constituent assembly that will draft the permanent constitution. To achieve that, they accepted the argument that the assembly should be formulated by consensus to include all shades of political life in the country. These will be awarded token representation equal to the number of seats they have won in the elections. Liberals and independents alike will be cast away like wild cats howling in the wilderness, unless they snowball into a formidable, politically disciplined bloc like the Muslim Brotherhood. Eventually, when the constituent assembly is formed and the constitution is drafted, the apple will not have fallen far from the Islamist tree.

Constitutions in all free countries are conceived and crafted to reflect the spirit of the law. They embody the overall principles that guide legislation, governance, the judiciary, civil society and pave the way to social justice. Drafting the constitution, the Islamist-controlled assembly will have to articulate a clear provision for the civil state, guarantee the rights of minorities and the status of the Copts as equal partners in the same homeland, particularly the right to freely build churches and the right to have equal access to public office. The position and rights of women in society are shrouded in generalities and, like the rights of the Copts, have been glossed over in the election programme of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the brainchild of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian voters were not trained in hair-splitting examination of political programmes, nor did they care. Their selection criteria were based on their perception of the Muslim Brotherhood as a pious, widely respected organisation that shared the suffering and persecution of the public for decades and doled out charity to the underprivileged. Therefore, it will not fail them in parliament or government. The challenge for the Brotherhood's FJP will be to restrain itself from practicing the tyranny of the majority.

Drafting the constitution is a different ball game. Unlike the election process there will be more erudite, more sophisticated and more liberal participants who will insist that agreement on a consensus document is a prerequisite. However, the parliamentary election process has identified mainly two forces: the pro-Islamists and the liberals. The absence of political pluralism for the last 60 years, since the Free Officers' Movement overthrew King Farouk and banned all political parties, left Egyptians with no political experience or education. In this arid environment only the Muslim Brotherhood played the role of clandestine opposition while the Marxist left was decimated and its proponents recanted after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.

Since the constitution will lay down broad principles, legislation will be a matter of interpretation of these principles, with a pro-Islamist slant. The debate over of the separation of state and religion will no longer arise and the second article of the 1971 constitution declaring that the Sharia is the main source of legislation will be sacrosanct. Passing legislation will depend not on consensus but majority vote, again giving rise to the tyranny of the majority. This scenario offers no serious independent debate, no alliance but issue- related collection of votes. In this vein, Salafist parties may sometimes vote with the Islamist bloc and, on other occasions, may join other parties in opposition. The Islamist bloc will try to forge a majority vote on most legislative issues, not only because it lacks a clear majority but also because the country cannot tolerate a fragmented legislature. Moreover, divisive legislation may be contested before the Supreme Constitutional Court for a binding opinion that may uphold that particular piece of legislation or shoot it down. In this case, coalition building and rubbing each other's back will be the name of the game. If the government in power is patched together by a coalition of parties under the thumb of the simple majority, any serious difference over policy could lead to the defection of one or more parties, leading to the collapse of the government. In this case, Egypt would be living between caretaker governments and parliamentary elections -- a bad recipe for stability. The Brotherhood that has now moved from the underground shadows of secret meetings and manoeuvre tactics to the broad daylight of free political action needs to reinforce its credibility with the public if it is to consolidate its power.

The Salafis' electoral showing took everyone by surprise. They preached radical Islam and impressed 25 per cent of the electorate that voted for them. They made no deals and were surprisingly blunt about their tactics and position on issues of principle. The Salafis will most likely be the bloc to harass the Brotherhood in parliament. Their puritanical approach to issues of the 21st century runs contrary to the pragmatic policies and deals the Brotherhood has honed itself in on during eight decades of trial and tribulation. Unlike the FJP leaders, Salafis declined to join Pope Shenouda III and Egyptian Copts in the celebration of Eastern Orthodox Christmas on 7 January. Uncompromising hardliners, the Salafis could engage in a duel with the Brotherhood that would be similar to the rivalry between the Marxist-Leninist and Trotskyite communist factions of the early 20th century. And they do not seem to be obliged by any deals with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), as many liberal Egyptians suspect the Brotherhood are.

Suspicion is rife that the Brotherhood struck a deal with the military. Many reported violations of the electoral rules and several documented irregularities went unchecked by the Supreme Electoral Commission or by supervising judges. Little or no action was taken with regards to complaints about violations and cases are piling up in administrative courts about them. One last favour SCAF needs to do to honour the fallen of the 25 January Revolution is to insist on its earlier pledge to guarantee that Egypt will be a democratic, civil state and not a masked theocracy. The Islamists have won this round because of the weakness and division among the genuine, but politically untrained, forces of the revolution. They remain revolutionary reservists that could be called up in times of crisis and, therefore, should not be choked by the military in favour of one faction or another.

The constituent assembly to be elected by the upcoming People's Assembly should have equal representation of all forces, including unelected constitutional jurists. It should be recalled that the celebrated 1923 constitution that came into existence before the Muslim Brotherhood was created had been crafted by a commission of 18 jurists selected from a committee of 30 representatives. That constitution embodied the most liberal values of the time, had strong provisions protecting individual freedoms, public opinion, freedom of expression, human rights and the rights of organised political action and trade unions.

A consensual constituent assembly should not be based on the results of parliamentary elections. These were an experimental dry run in the quest for democracy. Of course there will be all sorts of temptations to select a constituent assembly that will draft the kind of constitution envisioned by one group of parliamentarians or another, mainly those in the majority. This could create an unbalanced document that will surely be adopted by an electorate indoctrinated and led by either the Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood. It will be a contestable constitution, far from the spirit that guides the drafting of such sublime documents.

Many forces will try to influence the shaping of the constitution. The armed forces will seek to assume the responsibility of protecting the state and its civil institutions. The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have been beaten down and lost much of their clout and the revolution ended up in hands that have little or no claim to it. In effect, the best guarantee of guarding and honouring the principles of the revolution is the vitality and survivability of the spirit of Tahrir Square.

* The writer is former corespondent of Al-Ahram in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.

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