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Egypt: The Not So Bad Constitution

26 December 2012

Egypt: The Not So Bad Constitution

By Gwynne Dyer

Egyptian politics over the past nine months has not been an edifying sight, but the new constitution does not spell the end of democracy in Egypt. It scares the 36 percent of Egyptian voters who rejected it, but their fears are probably misplaced.

The revolution was made in the big cities, mostly by people who were secular in outlook. However, most Egyptian voters live in rural areas that are devout and deeply conservative, so three-quarters of the votes in the first free election went to Islamic parties.

The Freedom and Justice Party, the political vehicle of the Muslim Brotherhood, got almost half the votes but it did not really get a mandate to impose strict Islamic law on Egypt. Some of its votes came from people who wanted that, but some came from people who value the Brotherhood’s charitable work, or were just grateful for its role as the only real resistance during the decades of dictatorship.

The Brotherhood’s leadership understood that – but another quarter of the votes went to “Salafi” parties that have an extremist interpretation of Islam. The Salafis would obviously steal the votes of the Freedom and Justice Party’s more devout supporters in the next election unless there was some Islamic content in the new constitution.

The Brotherhood’s last political platform in 2007 called for a board of Muslim clerics to supervise the government. It also insisted that only Muslim men could become president. “The state which we seek can never be presided over by a non-Muslim,” said Mohammed Morsi, who drafted that platform and is now president of Egypt.

Maybe Morsi still privately thinks that, or maybe he has realised that these rules are unacceptable in a democracy where all citizens are equal. It doesn’t matter. The new constitution does not contain any such provisions, and the main reason is obviously the Brotherhood’s tacit bargain with the armed forces.

The deal, which guarantees the military’s privileges, was necessary to persuade the staunchly secular armed forces to accept an Islamic party in government, but it had a price: the new government could not be TOO Islamic. This posed a problem for Morsi, because Muslim Brotherhood activists wanted to use their political power to entrench “Islamic” rules in the new constitution.

So Morsi had to walk a fine line. He had to put enough Islamic language into the constitution to mollify his own supporters, but not so much that the military would break their alliance with him. He didn’t walk that line very well.

The whole constitutional process was a poisonous battle even before Morsi became president last June. In April the Supreme Judicial Council, whose members had all been appointed by the Mubarak dictatorship, dissolved the newly elected House of Representatives on a flimsy pretext, and also dismissed the constitution-writing assembly that it had chosen.

But the upper house of parliament is also dominated by Islamist parties, and it simply appointed another constituent assembly with the same make-up. After that it was open war.

By October most of the non-Islamists in the second constituent assembly had walked out, and the Supreme Judicial Council was about to dismiss that body too. Morsi’s clumsy response was to grant himself unlimited powers and forbid the judiciary to dismiss the assembly.

There was an outcry by the opposition, a fractious coalition of leftists, liberals and Christians, and the protestors were instantly back on the streets. But the constituent assembly promptly rendered the whole crisis unnecessary by passing the new draft constitution in a 29-hour marathon sitting, so Morsi cancelled his special powers – and on 22 December, Egyptians ratified the new constitution by a 63.8 percent majority.

Small crisis, not many hurt. The army got what it wanted: henceforward, the minister of defence must be a serving officer, and the military will effectively control its own budget. The parliament cannot even debate it.

The Brotherhood got less of what it wanted, but there are bits of Islamic language in the constitution to keep the activists happy. For example, Article 2 of the old constitution (1971) says: “The principles of Sharia are the main source of legislation.”

The new one still says that, but Article 219 adds: “The principles of Sharia include general evidence and foundations, rules and jurisprudence as well as sources accepted by doctrines of Sunni Islam and the majority of Muslim scholars.” And what practical difference does that make?

Article 30 states that “citizens are equal before the law and equal in rights and obligations without discrimination,” but as in the old constitution, there is no separate and explicit guarantee of women’s rights. Putting that in would have required a major battle with the misogynist rank and file of the Brotherhood, and the old formula would be quite adequate if the courts enforced it.

Nervous secular Egyptians fear that these bits and pieces of Islamic rhetoric are the seeds of a constitutional revolution that will turn the country into an Islamist dictatorship, but there is little evidence for that.

As for the frantic haste with which the constitution was passed – after two years of revolutionary upheaval, the Egyptian economy desperately needs the political stability that a new constitution and fresh elections (due in February) will provide. It’s not a plot. It’s just the politics of necessity.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 15 and 16. (“The Brotherhood’s…constitution”; and “Article…that”)

 

Morsi Goes Too Far

25 November 2012

Morsi Goes Too Far

By Gwynne Dyer

“There is no middle ground, no dialogue before (Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi) rescinds this declaration,” said pro-democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei. “There is no room for dialogue when a dictator imposes the most oppressive, abhorrent measures and then says ‘let us split the difference’.”

Morsi won last June’s presidential election fair and square, but many Egyptians really are frightened that his decree of 22 November sweeps aside the democratic gains of last year’s revolution. The decree gives him absolute power, although he swears it is only for a limited time.

Morsi was already governing by decree pending a new parliamentary election, since the courts had dissolved the lower house of parliament because the election was flawed. His latest decree declares that the courts cannot challenge any of his edicts until that new election takes place.

The decree also states that he can take any steps necessary to defeat undefined “threats to the revolution” – and nobody can ask the courts to decided whether those steps are legal and justifiable. In theory, at least, Morsi has given himself greater powers than the former dictator, Hosni Mubarak, ever possessed.

This is as puzzling as it is alarming, since nothing in Morsi’s previous history suggests that he wants to be Egypt’s next dictator. He is a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood and shares its conservative social and religious values, but that organisation, the mainstay of opposition to Egypt’s military dictators during half a century of tyranny, has moved a long way from its radical and sometimes violent origins.

So was Morsi a wolf in sheep’s clothing, just waiting for the chance to impose Islamic rule on everybody, including liberals, Christians, and secular Egyptians? How else can you explain what he has just done? The answer matters, because if Egypt, by far the most populous Arab country (90 million people), succumbs to a new tyranny, then the whole “Arab Spring” was just a brief illusion.

Morsi’s actions are wrong, but he is not actually aiming at a dictatorship. He just wants to thwart the Supreme Judicial Council, made up of judges who almost all date from the Mubarak era, which had already dismissed the first body charged with writing a new constitution. There were indications that it might be about to dissolve the second one on the same grounds.

The grounds were legally sound, for the first assembly chosen by parliament included a large number of MPs who belonged to the Islamic parties, although the law said that members of parliament could not themselves sit in the Constituent Assembly. A second Constituent Assembly, chosen in June, once again included members of parliament in clear defiance of the law, which is why it is facing further court challenges.

In the last month or so, the prospect that this new body will produce a constitution based mainly on Islamic law led most of the secular and Christian elements to withdraw. That deprived it of a voting quorum, but the remaining members, including many MPs linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, carried on regardless, so there was a growing probability that a new court ruling would dismiss this assembly too.

Morsi moved swiftly, not only giving himself supreme powers beyond the ability of the courts to challenge, but specifically forbidding the Supreme Judicial Council to dismiss the second Constituent Assembly. He also gave that assembly an extra two months to finish writing the constitution, after which it would have to be approved by referendum.

Only then (perhaps next May) would a new lower house of parliament be elected – and once the constitution is in place and the subsequent election is past, Morsi promised, he will relinquish his extraordinary powers. But by then Egypt would have an Islamic constitution, and almost certainly a lower house of parliament dominated by the Islamic parties.

What is happening now, therefore, is not the rise of a new dictatorship but rather a ruthless political manoeuvre aimed at creating a democratic but Islamic Egypt. Naturally, it frightens a large proportion of the 49 percent of Egyptians who voted against Morsi in the presidential election earlier this year, and it absolutely terrifies the country’s 8 million Christians.

Morsi’s edict has been met with impassioned protest in the streets, and the formation of a National Salvation Front aimed at uniting all non-Islamist groups to force Morsi to rescind his edicts. Its leaders include three of the candidates who ran against Morsi in the election earlier this year. But that may not be enough.

The truth is that the elections produced a parliamentary majority and a president who want to impose Islamic law, and that its opponents are using various legal devices in an attempt to stop the process. Moreover, a new constitution imposing Islamic law would almost certainly get a “yes” in a referendum.

But the other truth is that majorities in a democracy should not try to impose their religious and social views on large minorities who do not share them. Morsi is already showing signs of wanting to compromise – but, as ElBaradei pointed out, he cannot take these extreme measures and then offer to “split the difference.” Egypt is in for a rough ride.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“The grounds…challenges”; and “Only…parties”)