Filibuster CartoonsTitle: Egypt's new style
(click to view)Date:
December 8, 2012
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?