Monday,17 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012
Monday,17 June, 2019
Issue 1126, 13 - 19 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

When law dies

The history of Egypt’s modern constitutions holds intriguing lessons for the present, writes Samir Sobhi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Everyone knows about Egypt’s 1923 constitution, which was in force intermittently for a total of 25 years. But the story of the constitutions of Egypt begins much earlier with the statutes Mohamed Ali issued for the Maglis Ali, the Supreme Council, in 1823, which gave the country its first hint of what a modern state was all about. The Khedive Ismail later took the country closer to constitutional rule when he issued the statutes for the Maglis Shura Al-Nuwwab, the Consultative Council of Representatives, in 1866.

In 1883, the khedive then issued a nizami, or regulatory law, which set up the Maglis Shura Al-Qawanin, or Consultative Council for Legislation. Another nizami law in July 1913 created the Gameiya Tashriyia, or legislative assembly, a more developed form of parliament. Against this background, the drafting of the 1923 constitution came as a kind of quantum leap in the country’s political history. Although it was suspended between 1930 and 1935, it remained in force until December 1952, when the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) that had come to power as a result of the July 1952 Revolution annulled it. A temporary constitutional declaration issued by RCC chair Mohamed Naguib in February 1953 replaced it.

Egypt saw the drafting of its first post-monarchical constitution in January 1956 under the presidency of Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Two years later, this was replaced by another constitution, this time for the new United Arab Republic, the name of Egypt and Syria after their union in 1958. Syria seceded from the union three years later, and Egypt replaced the 1958 constitution with a further constitutional declaration in September 1961.

On 24 March 1964, Nasser issued the temporary 1964 constitution and instructed the parliament, or Maglis Al-Ummah as it was then called, to draft a permanent constitution for the country, which still anachronistically called itself the United Arab Republic. This name was changed by president Anwar Al-Sadat in 1971 to the Arab Republic of Egypt, and in the same year parliament drafted the 1971 constitution, which remained in effect until the 25 January Revolution in 2011 and was thus the longest-running constitution in the country’s history.

Over the past few months, references have been made on many occasions to the 1923 constitution and its democratic character. However, it should be kept in mind that even in 1923 the constitution was considered to be far from perfect. Written by a 32-member committee formed by King Fouad, a committee that included Jews and Christians as well as Muslims among its members, the constitution was vehemently criticised by the country’s three leading political parties.

True, the 1923 constitution widened the scope of political and individual freedoms, but it offered no social or economic guarantees to the poor, and it skipped any reference to women. It also failed to safeguard the independence of the judiciary. Commenting on his years as an MP under the 1923 constitution, Fikri Abaza, a prominent writer and one-time head of the Press Syndicate, said that his years of public service had brought him nothing but heartache.

“For me, parliamentary life was a living hell. Some people benefit financially or otherwise from their years of service in parliament. Some achieve fame or make fortunes. Some rise to demigod status. Not me. Perhaps it’s my fault. Perhaps I was a fool. But now I am sick and tired of the whole thing,” he wrote. The 1923 constitution was the worst enemy of parliamentary life in Egypt, Abaza wrote, blaming the vagueness of many of its articles for the country’s political upheavals.

“The constitution is full of confused phrasing, ambiguous wording, and elastic expressions that fail to specify the boundaries of the different branches of government. It says that power is to be divided among these branches, but doesn’t say which powers. This has given rise to the disturbances that have ended the life of more than one parliament. These have come about as a result of the ambiguity and perplexing phrasing of the constitution.”

Abaza also lamented the fact that the constitution gave the right to vote to the illiterate classes, who, he said, were easily swayed by the demagoguery of politicians. Some may share this feeling today.

The 1971 constitution spoke in detail about the country’s social and political obligations both at home and abroad, and its preamble notes that Egypt has regional and international roles that must be maintained and that the Egyptian people are part of the Arab nation. The same constitution also states that Islam is the religion of the state and that Arabic is its official language. It notes that the “principles of Sharia” are the main source of legislation.

Some commentators argue that at least in some of its clauses the draft of Egypt’s post-revolutionary constitution is superior to that produced in 1971. However, hundreds of thousands of people, some say millions, have taken to the streets to express opposing sentiments about what seems to be a hastily-written draft.

Yet, this is not the first time that Egypt has seen such massive demonstrations because of constitutional differences. On 14 November 1951, the country saw its first million-man march, starting, incidentally, from Tahrir Square. The march was in support of a decision by the government of the then prime minister, Mustafa Al-Nahhas, to abrogate the 1936 treaty and launch an armed struggle against the British occupation forces.

The organisers instructed the demonstrators not to use partisan flags or chants. Only inclusive nationalist slogans were allowed, such as, “we offer our life to you, Egypt,” “through blood nations are liberated,” and “Egypt for the Egyptians.”

Looking at the divisions in the country today, we might recall the words of one writer, who signed his articles anonymously as Sarhan (“oblivious” in Arabic), writing at the time of the 1923 constitution. According to Sarhan, even the smallest acts of deceit or corruption, once they become common, can undermine a country’s integrity.

Here is an extract from an article he wrote in 1923: “the state has a spirit, and the law has a spirit, and these can easily be undermined by the tiniest moral flaw. Think of nepotism as a microbe, think of cronyism as a microbe, and think of negligence as a microbe. Like all microbes, even the smallest ones can cause extensive damage.”

“Do you know where corruption comes from? It comes from you and me, from all of us... When the law dies, it’s because we ourselves have killed it.”

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