Revolution in chaos
Egyptians have only one last chance to save the revolution: not allowing the Constituent Assembly to be stacked by theocratic-leaning Islamists, writes Ayman El-Amir
Revolutions that changed the course of history took years to mature, distil their fundamental principles and sow them in their spheres of influence and beyond. This was the case of the American, French and Russian revolutions. The Egyptian Revolution of 25 January 2011, which is barely 17 months old, is still in its infancy, grappling with the priorities of its agenda. It seems more concerned with the issue of retribution than of building a new order.
There is, of course, the valid argument that it cannot build a new order unless it has demolished the old one. However, the Egyptian revolution is permeated by the mood of revenge. That probably explains the nationwide outrage that has engulfed the country following the court sentences in the case of former president Hosni Mubarak, his sons and associates. When the presiding judge, Ahmed Refaat, handed down a life sentence for Mubarak and his interior minister, Habib El-Adli, the crowd in the courtroom cheered Allahu Akbar (God is great). But when the charges against six top lieutenants were dropped for lack of concrete evidence, that had probably been tampered with and destroyed earlier by the defendants, the courtroom exploded "The people want to purge the judiciary" and went into a melee that continued outside the court bwwuilding.
The protest demonstrations that followed in Tahrir Square and 18 other major Egyptian cities encapsulated the people's sentiment that what they wanted was revolutionary justice rather than the standard legal justice the country's judiciary has long been flattered for. Some of the demonstrators were not even happy with the life sentence against Mubarak and wanted him sentenced to death. Others interpreted it as a 25-year sentence that would be reduced drastically after further review by the Court of Cassation and that Mubarak would be ultimately released after a few weeks and probably whisked out of the country. The rumour mill was turning out all kinds of stories.
After 30 years of Mubarak rule and its devious policies that enriched a few thousand loyalists and sent millions of others into the abyss of poverty, Egyptians firmly embraced conspiracy theory. It became second nature to them. A wide credibility gap developed between the government and its public officials and the people. Even the legal system was not immune to it, especially that the Mubarak regime manipulated the justice system in the same way the 23 July movement handled domestic policy: reward loyalists and penalising critics. This has been the culture of governance for 60 years. Furthermore, corruption infected the entire country. From the smallest town to the most prestigious seat of power, everything worked by bribery and go-betweens. That was the legacy of the Mubarak regime -- indeed of the entire era since the 23 July 1952 military coup.
Revolutionary justice, as an extraordinary form of punishment, is extrajudicial. It involves state security and revolutionary courts and has often worked against Egyptians. For 60 years, it was invariably used to suppress the opposition and to punish opponents, including Marxists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood alike. Rulings of up to the death sentence were passed on different occasions against different individuals by special courts that tarnished the reputation of the country's judicial system. Cases of torture, sometimes leading to death, were never fully investigated or brought to justice.
Revolutionary justice has been tamed since the days of "the Terror" under Robespierre at the peak of the 1789 French Revolution when 15,000 to 20,000 French men and women were executed by the guillotine for expressing moderately opposite views. Yet, extraordinary forms of justice are sometimes called up in times of turmoil. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya was summarily executed by one shot in the head without any due process of law. His execution met with little if any protest because his own countrymen and most people around the world had already condemned him as a villain. Nikolai Ceausescu of Romania and his wife were summarily executed by a firing squad in 1990 after being condemned to death by a political court in a small room adjacent to the execution arena.
Egyptians wanted extraordinary justice against the Mubarak clique for the extraordinary injustice of killing 840 and injury of more than 6,400 young people who demonstrated against his regime. They wanted revolutionary courts or trials in a Tahrir Square court followed by public hanging of the culprits. But times have changed.
The Egyptian public is right in suspecting that many assets of the Mubarak regime are still in power; thousands of his loyalists manage state and public affairs and economic policies. Should a national government closely monitored by the people and answerable to them be installed, and all the country's institutions be regulated by a civil, democratic and modern constitution, that would affirm the separation of powers, the country would be on the right course for change.
It is unfortunate that the Muslim Brotherhood has jumped on the bandwagon of public outrage to settle accounts with its rivals, reaffirm its one-track agenda and restore the confidence it had lost in the eyes of the public since last November's parliamentary elections. They have also used the opportunity to try and control the formation of the Constituent Assembly that will draft a permanent constitution. That was why they boycotted the all-party meeting called by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) Tuesday to amend the Constitutional Declaration of March 2011, to pre-empt any attempt by the Brotherhood to dominate the proposed assembly. It resorts to delay tactics to gain time until the transitional period is terminated, SCAF's, mandate has expired, and a Muslim Brotherhood president is in power.
The Brotherhood succeeded in quickly mobilising tens thousands of Egyptians in major cities to protest the rulings, and incited some of them to undermine the other presidential candidate scheduled for the rerun, Ahmed Shafik, by presenting him as an accessory to the Mubarak regime. That was violently rejected by Shafik who labelled the Brotherhood as "the forces of chaos and darkness". Again, the Brotherhood overplayed their hand by using the protest to raise the sagging image of Mohamed Mursi, their candidate, by attacking Shafiq. Looking forward to the presidential election rerun, the electorate still remembers what a voracious appetite the Brotherhood has for power. In the eyes of the public, it clearly wants to consolidate the powers of all state institutions into its hands. It is trying, rather successfully, to fire up people and to turn their wrath against Shafiq for the Brotherhood's ulterior motives.
Egyptians have only one last chance to restore the balance of the political system they envision: the composition of a multifarious Constituent Assembly. Should the Brotherhood succeed in vilifying Shafiq to give an edge to Mursi and to capture the presidency, the drafting of the new constitution is doomed to fall prey to theocratic tendencies. Instead, it should affirm the principles of the civil nature of the state, citizenship, equality and endorsement of the international covenants of human rights. For this to happen, the Constituent Assembly should steer clear of any religious-leaning members and preferably consist mainly of jurists. Additionally, SCAF should ensure that the position of the president is not endowed with extraordinary powers or privileges. But the Brothers have a mind of their own. After flexing their muscles in public squares, they felt that they muster enough power to boycott an all-party meeting with SCAF and to turn a deaf ear to a proposal by other presidential candidates for setting up an interim presidential council.
Egyptians have a great deal to learn from their modern history. The celebrated constitution of 1923 was drafted by 18 members, mostly jurists, selected from among the 30-member Committee of the Constitution. The 18 members were called "the Committee of General Principles," which drafted the bulk of the constitution. In the course of the debate, a member proposed, as a courtesy to the Egyptian Copts, the constitution should provide a special quota for the Copts as a minority. The proposal was vehemently opposed by a prominent Copt at the time, Fikri Makram Ebeid, who argued that the rights of the Copts were fully protected and guaranteed by the constitutional provisions of citizenship and equality. The proposal was later dropped. That was the Egypt that was.
The writer is former corespondent of Al-Ahram in Washington, DC, and former director of the UN Radio and Television in New York.