Egypt’s new style

Egypt’s new style
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Next Saturday, Egypt is set to finally transition out of its long, post-Mubarak hangover with a national referendum to approve a new, permanent constitution. It will formally herald a new beginning for the fledgling Muslim nation, and officially end over a year-and-a-half of protracted legal and political limbo.

That’s presuming, of course, everything goes as according to plan. And that’s a pretty big “if” these days.

It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on Egypt, so let’s try to get up to speed with a quick summary.

Longtime tyrant Hosni Mubarak, we may recall, was formally deposed amid massive public protest in the winter of 2010-2011, in what most Egyptians now refer to as a “revolution” but technically speaking was simply an old-fashioned military coup. On February 11, 2011, Mubarak was disposed not by the masses themselves, after all, but rather something called the “Armed Forces Supreme Council,” Egypt’s highest military body. The new head of state, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, proceded to assert his power by disbanding the Egyptian legislature, but also agreed to institute multi-party elections for a new one, as well as a replacement president and a “constitutional assembly” to approve a new, long-term form of government. In the meantime, everyone would just play along with the ramshackle remnants of the Mubarak system. Frustration has been the inevitable result, as a public promised radical change continues to clash with an anachronistic political establishment that remains, for the most part, still 90% pre-revolutionary.

As the Marshal promised, on January of 2012 the country held its first free and fair parliamentary election, with the results yielding an unsurprising sweep for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, a popular Mubarak-era opposition movement banned under the old regime. In March, that new Islamist-dominant parliament, in turn, appointed half the members of a 100-member ad-hoc committee known as the Constituent Assembly, tasked with drafting a new post-revolutionary constitution.

Now, the country’s secular liberals and Christians were not pleased with either of these two outcomes, viewing the Islamist-appointed majority in the Constituent Assembly in particular as a sign that their country was now steadily marching towards a theocratic future. They appealed to the judiciary, and in April the Assembly was suspended with a court order citing its “lack of diversity.” A new one was appointed by parliament in June, only for the exact same deadlock to unfold. Again the elected Islamists legislators demanded a right to control the majority of members, and again the secularist minority walked out, leaving what one critic described as “a discredited rump” to determine the nation’s highest law.

Things only got worse for the secularists when presidential elections were held in June, and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi emerged victorious. His allegiances firmly with the Assembly’s Islamist majority, Morsi feared a second court-ordered dissolution, and on November 22 issued a decree banning the judiciary from any further oversight of the constitutional process. This provoked a judicial strike, but a week later, the constitutional assembly still approved its final draft anyway, and it’s this draft that Egyptians will supposedly vote on come December 15.

For a document that’s supposed to provide a sense of national unity and legal legitimacy to the turmoil-plagued republic, it’s hard to imagine a more tainted implementation process. Regardless of whether the Assembly’s draft is eventually approved by majority vote, it’s clear large segments of Egyptian society — particularly some of its most educated, secular, and powerful sectors — consider the proposed constitution flawed to the point of illegitimacy, and will almost certainly undermine it even if it becomes the law of the land.

For those of us in the West, it’s certainly easy to sympathize with the liberals. Critics both domestic and foreign, after all, have made much of the new charter’s ambiguity on various human rights issues — particular the rights of women — as well as its broadly authoritarian and religious character. To be sure, no one is proposing Egypt become the next Iran, but for those always squeamish about the possibility General Mubarak could be replaced by something “worse” in the long term, well, there’s definitely lots to work with.

On the other hand, there’s something decidedly troubling about a democratic process that is constantly subjected to the elitist veto of a bossy minority. A large part of the populist appeal of Islamist politicians like President Morsi, after all, is the fact that they are true revolutionary figures with great democratic bona fides, while the anti-Islamist critics are largely unelected judges, lawyers, academics, bureaucrats, and generals who were either appointed directly by the deposed Mubarak dictatorship, or enjoyed prosperous and powerful careers by actively collaborating with it. At what point are the liberals willing to concede that their vision of Egypt — secular and progressive though it may be — is simply not the preference of the vast bulk of the citizenry who would, if ever allowed to state a preference, much rather live in a society far more Islamic and traditional than the elites would prefer.

In any case, it seems increasingly obvious that a rushed approval of a contested constitution isn’t really in either side’s interests; even from an Islamist perspective, it would be a decidedly pyrrhic victory to ram through a constitution only to find it ignored by the very people — chiefly the military and judiciary — whose powers will be most needed to uphold it. As I write this, advance voting in the constitutional referendum has already been delayed, and it remains possible the Supreme Court could issue a last minute decree invalidating the entire process and sparking a standoff with the President — presuming, that is, that the judges manage to find a way to enter their own building.

I often talk with Canadians and Americans about the need to reform our own constitutions in some dramatic way, and one of the most common reactions is a sense of depressed despair at how impossible such a task would be in the modern era. North American ideologies are simply too extreme and polarized for that sort of grand, national project to work, they say, and I think they’re mostly right. Just try to imagine an American “constitutional assembly” in the era of the Tea Party without crippling, intractable deadlock — to say nothing of a Canadian one with a large Quebec delegation.

The question thus becomes whether Egypt, a society even more hopelessly polarized than our own, is facing a truly impossible task. Can a universally respected constitution be made in the 21st century from the bottom-up, or is the very goal a dated fantasy of simpler and less democratic times? (Let’s not forget how many western democracies have constitutions that predate female suffrage).

Is the best we can hope for, in the words of Time’s Ayman Mohyeldin a flawed constitution with a healthy amending formula? Or is that too cynical?

What advice would you give the Egyptians?


  1. Condoleeza Nice

    More like Islam-ISNTm!

  2. Chris

    I think that for a constitution to become universally respected takes time, but that it doesn't matter terribly, for that process, what is in the original document. The Egyptian constitution will make very few people happy now, but given enough time they will come to respect it. Once the revolution and the constitutional process are safely in the past the Egyptians will be able to create a nice, simple, unifying, narrative of events, just as the Americans have done with their own revolution.

  3. Max

    "Britian"? ;P

  4. Dirk

    "Byzantinians" and "Britian" made me giggle.

  5. Jake_Ackers

    Small parliamentarian gov't so all factions have an equal vote. And don't have a first past the post, have a MMP or better a preferential voting system.

    Also, a country is only stable after it's, IIRC, third straight successful election. With Egypt I would put third straight successful election AND candidate.

    Also a key point, I don't know if its as important in Egypt, but in Iraq there was problem because the gov't didn't take into account local chieftains. In the western world, it would be akin to local community leaders or local gov't. Egypt especially outside Cairo needs this. As frankly, Cairo is not all of Egypt.

  6. Etc.

    The Byzantines were a continuation of the Romans, there's no need for separate hats there.

  7. Jake_Ackers

    That's like saying the USA or Canada is a continuation of the British Empire. Although you are technically right, there is are many differences between the two. Mostly that the center of world power shifted to the Middle East during that period. Especially how Constantinople became the center for Christianity and then turned into Istanbul, center for Islam.

  8. Etc.

    Except that in the USA there was a revolution to specifically separate from that empire.

    The Byzantines were the Romans, it just happened to be that the eastern half kept on kicking long after the western half was overrun by barbarians. There is no clear point that historians can go to to say, 'Ah, these guys are no longer Romans!', unlike either of your examples. The character of the Roman Empire changed during that time, sure, but it's not as if it'd been completely static before then.

  9. Jake_Ackers

    I understand what you are saying. However, take into account Diocletian's reforms marked the division of the empire into two. Moreover, like I stated Christendom's domination as a result of Constantine and even more Theodosius. Although to be honest I suppose it is more like a country going from a monarchy to a republic. Same country just different form of government.

    You are technically correct though. Since the distinction is something we do use. I do view them as two different things primarily because of the influence of religion as a ruling authority back then. And once Christianity took over the Eastern half, the East had a rather distant difference from the West.

    I guess it isn't so much that Egypt changed from a Roman to a Byzantine hat but the two Roman twins started to dress differently. Still twins but just different. Good discussion Etc.

  10. JonasB

    I have three main thoughts about the Egypt constitution situation:

    1. I read an article saying that the christians/liberals in the parliament boycotted the constitution drafting but then started to complain because it was too Islamist–which was sorta expected since they walked out.

    2. The whole diversity thing and the religious representation aspect reminds me a lot of the whole geographic/regional representation issues that Canada had when it first formed. No real point behind this one–just saying it's an interesting parallel.

  11. JonasB

    make that two main thoughts…

  12. Chris Germann

    I think something that's important to remember is that in order to believe in democracy, it's necessary to believe that the long agony of debate does, inevitably, result in the best of all possible worlds. Or to put that more cynically, the least of all evils.

    One of the hardest things to wrestle with in a democracy, whether that be the USA, Canada, or clearly Egypt, is that if your worldviews are of a minority opinion within your own nation, those you disagree with will hold more power. I know I sound patronizing, but what I see going on in Egypt is the same bluster and hot air that every democratic nation makes when a majority and a minority are at odds. While in I can understand the worry coming both from within Egypt and from the international consensus of Egypt repeating the history of Iran, at the same time it cannot be denied that Morsi was elected by popular vote, and therefore reflects the will of the people. Maybe I'm just being naive, but I honestly think that Egypt is going to be just fine, and the world will be better for it.

  13. Jake_Ackers

    Problem is the Constitution isn't being followed. The very people who elected him are pissed at him and want him gone. So I think the whole Constitution discuss is a rather premature or even moot point.

    Moreover a Constitution is not suppose to be subjected to popular opinion. The majority wrote the Constitution without regards for civil rights and liberties of everyone. The majority may rule but they still govern for 100% of the populace. Having a majority write the Constitution without regard for others, might as well get rid of the judiciary.

    However, again the entire Constitution isn't even being followed. The courts are being pressured by the majority. A Constitution is meant to limit, primarily the government. The problem those in power aren't even following. Thus the Constitution was bound and is too weak. Not just because it doesn't respect other's rights but also because it doesn't actually govern. The Constitution was dictated by the majority (which in itself is wrong) and now has to be voted on. Which if the major approves of it, it just again denies others rights. Which yes is the pitfall of a democracy. Nonetheless, the very majority who voted for Morsi don't want him anymore.

    Plus again my main point, the Constitution failed. If the Constitution can't protect itself then it is too weak. Much like the Articles of Confederation, so the US drew up the US Constitution.

  14. Devil Child

    One of the hardest things to wrestle with in a democracy, whether that be the USA, Canada, or clearly Egypt, is that if your worldviews are of a minority opinion within your own nation, those you disagree with will hold more power.

    I'm amazed to see a statement this ignorant on true democracy.

    The only true democracies are the ones in which all citizens are treated as equals under the rules of the nations law. The inherent goal of all Islamists is to institutionalize inequality for non-Muslims, to say nothing of gays and women. Any democracy that doesn't to this is mob rule, and substantially less liberating than Maoism when certain people, i.e. Islamists, are the ones running the show.

    Egypt is already substantially more repressive than Russia both pre and post-Mumbarak. If you actually want a democratic Egypt, you will accept nothing less than a nation where all citizens are equal under whatever laws the people want, and that whatever system is implemented, the ability to alter it legally is set into the framework.

  15. Guest

    Yep – that's democracy for you.
    I'd take a good look at Turkey for useful parallels – an overwhelmingly Muslim country with secularism enshrined (but regularly under attack by the Muslim majority members).

  16. Jake_Ackers

    Good example. The biggest check though I think is the Turkish military doesn't want to go into a war. So they have a strong check on the democratic process. If the radicals take over then Turkey will become a state sponsor of terror and Turkey would risk being invaded or w/e else.

    And the Egyptian Spring was only possible because of the Egyptian military. Most of them are young and wanted Mubarak out. Now I think they are waiting otherwise they would be viewed as a junta.

  17. M_T_Cicero

    The sticky situation that Egypt is in, IMHO, is that the elite and the populace at large really aren't lining up on the same side of the debate…and given the nature of there to be irregularities in third world elections on at least some scale, this presumably gave the judiciary the ability to keep throwing elections out until they got the result they wanted. So to some extent I have procedural sympathy for Morsi…

    …but only to some extent. The other aspects of the decree he issued bug me. It's one thing to tell the judiciary to butt out (I've got complex opinions on the role of an "independent judiciary"…in general, I think they need to be free to rule on cases, but their role in interpreting a given Constitution can get carried a step too far), and another to go beyond that.

    As to the Constitution being subject to popular opinion or not…well, it at least needs some element of support at the start to be effective IMHO, and this goes double when there's not exactly a pre-existing framework to work from. So I think it's fair to have a vote on the document; France did this in the 50s, and you've had a number of other countries do something like this.

    Whether the walkout was the result of a group being genuinely steamrolled or was a snit at them not getting their way is another thing I'm not sure of. I can see arguments both ways…and it's possible that it depends on who you ask and widely open to interpretation. If they couldn't get a few modest clauses put in about this right or that, that's one thing…but if it was that they couldn't get their way across the board, that's entirely another.

    So, if it's not clear…my thoughts are convoluted and I don't really have enough information as to what is actually going on. Frankly, the best thing might be for Morsi to get shoved out the door and Egypt to start fresh with a weak figurehead at the top until they can get more settled in and get their papers in order, so to speak. That would mean another couple of months or a year of unsettled chaos, but it would at least resolve a somewhat deeper question as to whether Morsi is the problem and he's tainting the process or if the troubles are a bit more deeply structural.

  18. Jake_Ackers

    Whether Morsi is the problem or not. Doesn't matter. The Constitution is too weak in terms of checks and balance/the executive is too strong. Even if he isn't the problem, it shows that the executive CAN be a problem. Especially in a country who just got rid of one dictator. Shouldn't the Constitution have a strong legislature and a weaker executive branch compared to before or even now? What does merit a clearer definition, in addition to a weaker executive and strong legislature, is that the judiciary should have a clearer defined role. Maybe do like the US does, in which Congress can remove some of the KIND of cases the courts can review. And only leave the fundamental constitutionally outlined cases to the courts by default.

  19. M_T_Cicero

    The problem all too often is that if a document doesn't have some degree of respect, it becomes easy to bend clauses that are intended to weaken one branch in favor of another. Thus, at least some of the issue with the strong executive may be more down to the extant political culture than the document itself, and when you've got that sort of problem then even a good document can't stop trouble.

    With that said, I agree that some sort of agreement does need to be reached on where the courts can and can't interfere, and perhaps limiting remedies (such as restricting their ability to order a dissolution of parliament or requiring the court to act before the election if they want to invalidate a method of voting). At least some of the issue does seem to be that the court didn't like how the election turned out the first time, so they threw it out.

  20. Allan Wadsworth

    That is so true,being polar in a society thats life line is so cohesive,being an american I can only relate to what the media broadcast and I can futher resound on. It such a shame people clash for whatever reason in which I can not perceive, and the probability of the institution of the new egyptian president and his followers is something to look forward to. It has been men who daringly forge a new path step by step,building a sound society in which all can prosper under the guise of the governments authority. With this said its hope that can muster good into outstanding and that that can bring joy to all who live humanely.

  21. Taylor

    Constitutions are never put into place without some problems. The American one limped along and then almost died 50 years after it was made.

    It's a general respect for civil society that keeps things going in societies, not a piece of paper or a tradition.

  22. Taylor

    70, I should say.

  23. Jake_Ackers

    True however the US fixed the Articles of Confederation and the Civil War was over an interpretation of that new Constitution. Moreover, the new one gave the people and gov't the means to deal with such things.

    The problem with Egypt is it can't even get the first one passed. Heck, Morsi can't even stop completely violating the entire intent of the election. He is trying to become a dictator again.

  24. Taylor

    You're splitting hairs, the 1791 US Constitution was a self-contradictory mess that faced quite a few breakdowns before finally (a) becoming enforceable due to Federal military force (ie, it didn't properly give the people and gov't the means to deal with such things, and a war had to happen) and (b) the subsequent amendments.

    And it's not the first Egyptian constitution.

  25. Jake_Ackers

    In your Point A, even though the South rebelled, the US Constitution gave the President the means to enforce the Constitution. Martial law, suspending habeus corpus, etc. The US even though the South rebelled, was still the US and still could function. Even though some didn't agree on the interpretation of the Constitution, the institution of gov't still functioned as it should have. In Egypt the gov't itself is clearly violating the separation of powers.

    And on point B. Yes that is the exact point. The amendments gave the US a way to fix itself. The Egyptian Constitution is just completely being violated. The Supreme Court in Egypt can't even make decisions because of the illegal pressure from the executive branch.

    I know it's not the first Egyptian Constitution but it is the first for the new modern republic. So its a bases on a whole new dynamic. It's not like they didn't like the first one and made a new one.

  26. Taylor

    The original Constitution in 1791, however, didn't fit the bill. Just because there was an amendment procedure doesn't mean an it's an endorsement of the original document when an amendment occurs, quite the opposite. Amendments 13, 14, and 15 so completely change the document as to make it, basically, a new constitution. It took military force and a change in civil society for these changes to occur.

    No country has a perfect Constitution (I'm a severe critic of mine), and to pretend that the American situation is that different from other countries is silly.

  27. Jake_Ackers

    The methods to create those changes are still written into the Constitution is my point. That is the point of an amendment. The US added amendments, thus a challenge to preexisting gov't conditions. The Egyptian one doesn't have a strong enough challenge to the executive branch.

    Put it this way. In the US, the people revolted and the Constitution then after the war gave the US a method to fix itself. Whether there was a war or not, the amendment process would of been used in the end anyway. In Egypt, the gov't itself revolted, and there is no way to remedy that situation.

    Thus, the Egyptian Constitution which was written in a response to a dictator (Mubarak) failed to protect itself from another dictator, Morsi. It's Constitution is too weak. The situation in Egypt was akin to the situation under the Articles of Confederation. The US got a new Constitution, thus does Egypt need a new one.

  28. Taylor

    Also consider, the after Civil War amendments were unable to be made due to the structure the Constitution provided. They were only passed by having most states absent, and by basically making the states rebelling pass them before becoming normalized.

  29. Jake_Ackers

    Doesn't matter. The method to fix those problems were still there. The process to amend the Constitution existed. Just because they didn't pass the amendment with the South present doesn't mean it isn't possible. The Egyptian one was made specifically to deal with a dictator and it doesn't have strong enough to deal with it. The Egyptian Constitution has a fatal flaw in dealing with its own gov't.

    All Constitution are meant to limit gov't FIRST. The Egyptian one has failed in that first step. Thus it's structure needs to be changed.

    Plus southern slaves states were starting to be less than half of the House and Senate. They left because they knew they couldn't get the votes to keep slavery. They didn't want to follow the procedure anymore. The Constitution nevertheless gave the US Gov't a method to protect itself. A constitution isn't going to stop every rebellion but it does give the methods to fix the problem.

    The Egyptian one doesn't offer methods strong enough to fix the problem. Again the Civil War was a people problem, the Egyptian one is a gov't problem.

  30. Etc.

    Not quite. The President is not given the power to suspend habeas corpus; according to the Constitution, that was Congress' duty. Lincoln bypassed the Congress when he revoked habeas corpus, as well as when the income tax was imposed.

  31. Jake_Ackers

    Habeas Corpus Suspension Act and Revenue Act 1861. Congress did pass it eventually. The Constiution gave the US gov't a method to deal with a rebellion.

    And again, the Civil War as a people problem, the the Egyptian one is a gov't problem. The US had methods to deal with a people revolt and methods to do deal with gov't getting too big.

    The best comparison to what is happening in Egypt, is FDR's attempt to pretty much seize the Supreme Court. As Mubarak is pretty much doing what he wants and the Egyptian Supreme Court and its legislature is too weak to do anything. The US Congress was able to stop FDR. Even the Supreme Court was able to stop the Midnight Appointments of US justices. Thus pretty much in both cases stopping the executive from controlling the entire US Gov't. As the legislative majorities were with Adams and FDR.

  32. Devil Child

    A large part of the populist appeal of Islamist politicians like President Morsi, after all, is the fact that they are true revolutionary figures with great democratic bona fides,

    The only people who could possibly say something like this would be the kind of people who wouldn't see anything wrong replacing the words "President Morsi" with "Ayatollah Khomeni."

    while the anti-Islamist critics are largely unelected judges, lawyers, academics, bureaucrats, and generals who were either appointed directly by the deposed Mubarak dictatorship, or enjoyed prosperous and powerful careers by actively collaborating with it.

    I can't believe an openly gay man would put this sentence together. You should be embarrassed with yourself for writing this.

    At what point are the liberals willing to concede that their vision of Egypt — secular and progressive though it may be — is simply not the preference of the vast bulk of the citizenry who would, if ever allowed to state a preference, much rather live in a society far more Islamic and traditional than the elites would prefer.

    The chief issue with the new Egypt is the lack of freedom to bring about a society the majority of the population actually wants. An Islamist society is about as capable of representing a variety of people and viewpoints as the White-ist Apartheid-Era South Africa.

    The Islamists chiefly did the best in the elections because they loved the idea of an Islamist society so much they were willing to risk jail and/or execution from the nations they operated in. Since the secularists are terrified of an Islamist society, they sided with the people most likely to stop them, which were the militarists with the good weapons and strong support. If Egypt was to have a truly representative election, they would've held off voting, written the Constitution before holding elections, and given time for the secularists and democrats to get their base together.

    Because of Western stupidity and Islamist thuggery, that's now impossible, but what can still keep Egypt together short of blood is a constitution that allows for the true equality and representation of every member of society, and the chance to change Egyptian society on such equal terms. Inherent inequality that the Islamists want to institutionalize automatically kills that. Hell, seeing as how the Egyptian constitution already drops the criminalization of slavery, institutes no women's rights protections, criminalizes Islamic apostasy, and institutionalizes non-Muslim inequality, the Muslim Brotherhood are less democratic than a Maoist party.

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