Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

A revolutionary constitution? Not exactly

Egypt voted this month on a new constitution, but questions linger about whether it can reinvent itself as a full-fledged democracy, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since the 25 January 2011 Revolution that toppled the regime of Hosni Mubarak, a debate has been raging on whether Egypt, with its long history of autocracy, can finally pull together enough political will and desire to establish a fully democratic order.

With a new constitution in place after the referendum on 14-15 January, the country should have passed a major milestone in its turbulent transition, providing a glimpse into whether Egypt’s long-awaited democracy is finally attainable.

Like any constitution, Egypt’s new supreme law of the land is a mirror that reflects a political, social and economic reality. The urgency imposed by the political process following the army-backed uprising that ousted Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement in July has impacted heavily on the national document and made many question its ability to successfully transform Egypt into a nation characterised by the antitheses of all that was bad about the Mubarak and Morsi systems.

The constitution is a contract that sets the rules of the game for a democratic government, regulating the relationship between the executive, legislature and judiciary and ensuring a balance between rights and responsibilities.

Undoubtedly, Egypt’s second constitution after the fall of Mubarak is far from ideal for those Egyptians who fought Mubarak’s autocracy and feared Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood theocracy. Its main shortcoming is that its drafters have failed to capture the moment of history and introduce a vision for the future that not only consolidates democracy and fundamental freedoms but also takes Egypt beyond the legacy of its entrenched “deep state” and its ritualised dominance of the political landscape.

Too much focus has been put by the Western mainstream media on the parts in the constitution that reinstated a diluted version of Islamic clauses and stripped that which were imposed by the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies during their one year reign that ended with the military-backed popular uprising.

Though this remains an essential factor in the battle over hearts and minds, or the identity of Egypt as the framers of the constitution tried to explain in its preamble, it may have little effect on the state’s institutional frameworks and their ability to uphold the democratic principles long aspired for by most Egyptians.

Also, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on the powers and privileges given to the army in the constitution, which makes it the nation’s strongest institution. While the critique of the paramount role of the army enshrined in the charter is understood, it fails to underline the larger problem of authoritarianism that is exemplified in the enormous powers given to the president, including naming the prime minister, appointing other top executive officials, drawing the government’s policies, decreeing laws, vetoing legislation and dissolving the cabinet.

Many would argue that the privileging of the head of the state over an elected parliament, which recalls Mubarak’s extensive executive powers, hardly looks like initiating a participatory and inclusive democracy and decision-making, which are key national policy demands following the revolution.

One of the main weaknesses of the charter is its failure to define an election system that might not be constitutionally vulnerable to challenge. It left it to the current interim military-appointed president to set rules for the upcoming parliamentary poll, a move that would lend much credibility to sceptics who fear that the transitional government will come up with a paternalistic statute that recreates the same socio-political class that has furnished Egypt’s ruling elite over the last six decades.

What is needed instead is a model that creates a public space for citizens and political parties to compete in the delivery of political goods in the course of a stable transitional democratic process.

By the same token, the new constitution has maintained Egypt’s old heavy-handed style of governance, thus burdening a state that is already suffering from severe capacity problems.

It has also missed a great opportunity to initiate reform of the entrenched bureaucracy and introduce a much-needed decentralised government system. Lessons from Egypt’s recent past point to the need for participatory decision-making on the provincial and local levels of government, in order to ensure inclusion and that the founding principles of democracy are upheld.

While giving full guarantees for the independence of the judiciary and its right to veto legislation related to judges, and the law and court system, the constitution ignored calls for the much-needed judicial reforms. In some aspects, Egypt’s judiciary was adversely affected by political interference during Mubarak’s era and infighting during the turbulent transitional period that followed.

Many in Egypt believe the judicial system is lagging behind international standards, especially in terms of quality, judicial efficiency, delivering speedy justice and human rights criteria. And while they believe the judiciary should be protected from political influence, they want to see a more “democratised” and “professionalised” judiciary working in greater transparency and accountability.

Under the structure of government built by this constitution, power among the executive, judicial and legislative branches seems not evenly distributed, with the balance heavily tilting towards the executive branch, including the president and the government.

Given the lack of strong political parties, a practice of forming parliamentary blocs and an inclusive democratic culture, a combination of state bureaucracy, a political elite and a greedy oligarchy will remain the unchallenged political order.

The common theme in the charter is to consolidate emerging stability over democratic practice and the individual’s role in active citizenship as expressed in the goals of “bread, freedom, justice and human dignity” set by the Egypt’s revolution in 2011.

That takes us to the key question of whether the new constitution will be able to make Egypt grow up into a country in which democracy, freedoms and human rights thrive. While it enshrines personal and political rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, in stronger language than past constitutions, grants additional rights to Christians and marks a significant move in advancing women’s rights, the constitution restricts many of these rights and freedoms to regulations and laws.

The proponents’ priority is apparently to maintain stability through protecting the entrenched “deep state” and ensuring its dominating and continuing role, even at the risk of re-establishing authoritarianism. They argue that its endorsement by 98.1 per cent of people who voted in the referendum was a vote on the legitimacy of the new order and the people’s desire to move forward.

Sceptics, on the other hand, fear that a lack of national consensus on the political process that it embodies will turn the document into a recipe for paralysis, when Egypt will neither be able to maintain the status quo, nor move forward. They note that with a turnout of 38.6 per cent of the 53 million eligible voters, the charter was still short of the overwhelming support it needed.

Herein lie two fundamental questions: Will the political system instated by the constitution add value to democratisation, and will it guarantee long-term stability? The simple answer is that there is an opportunity and there are challenges, and the response to them will reflect the new Egypt’s maturity.

Nearly three years since the transitional period started, three administrations have faltered on meeting the demands of the 25 January Revolution and resolving a series of issues that led to the popular protests. The new constitution stands as a stark testimony to the failure to echo the idealism that fired the revolution and to inject it into the daily practice of politics.

The broader conclusion may be simpler: the stirring rhetoric of the revolution has crashed against the sobering reality of Egyptian politics dominated since the ouster of the monarchy in 1952 by an establishment man on top of the government and the army as the protector of the national narrative with the help of the security apparatus, the bureaucracy and the media.

Of course many Egyptians feel that the new constitution may not bring the change they have aspired for soon enough, but the brighter side is that with a new polity, and power having clearly shifted to the national arena, the door will remain open for constitutional reform.

“The constitution that is being written now is provisional. The permanent constitution emerges at a moment of accord. Ours is that of discord,” professed Egypt’s renowned author and historian Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, who is a staunch supporter of the interim authority.

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