Democratic constitution faces hurdle: Egypt’s past

Many criticisms have been leveled at Egypt’s military rulers for drafting a 63-article interim Constitutional Declaration without consulting the country’s revolutionary forces, just two weeks after Egyptians cast their ballots in favor of amending only eight articles in the 1971 Constitution.

But the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has ruled the country since Mubarak’s ouster on 11 February, is now indicating its openness to a more inclusive approach to drafting Egypt’s permanent constitution.

SCAF member General Mohamed al-Assar said on 11 April that the military has been talking with different political factions about the idea of forming a National Accord Committee to advise the upcoming parliament, which will draft the country’s new constitution.

Though he did not specify its composition or mandate, Assar’s statement has been received positively by many political analysts who believe the new constitution should be the outcome of a national consensus, rather than being left entirely to political groups, namely the Islamists, who are widely predicted to win a landslide victory in the September parliamentary elections due to their strong grassroots bases.

Article 60 of the interim Constitutional Declaration stipulates that within six months of parliamentary elections, the SCAF should convene an assembly of parliamentarians to select a 100-member committee to write the permanent constitution, a process that will take another six months. The draft constitution will then be put to a national referendum. The problem with this, analysts say, is that it will leave Egypt’s new president no room to influence the drafting process.

“Establishing a constituent assembly prior to the parliamentary elections that would write a draft constituent is meant to balance the next parliament from outside,” said Sherif Younis, a history professor at Helwan University.

The key point of contention between Islamists and secularists with regards to the new constitution, according to Younis, is not about Islamic sharia law being the main source of legislation, but rather what type of system will govern Egypt in the future.

“The view held by the military, traditional secular opposition parties, and the majority of revolutionary forces is that Egypt’s should be governed by a presidential system, not a parliamentary one like the Brotherhood has been advocating,” said Younis, who is also an editor of the online pro-democracy journal El-Bosla.

Islamists were quick to dismiss the army-backed National Accord Committee as undemocratic.

“This is a mere political maneuver,” said Essam Sultan of the Islamist Wasat Party. “The Egyptian people said clearly during the constitutional referendum that the constitution should be based on popular legitimacy, not the will of an appointed committee.”

Younis, however, believes that the permanent constitution should reflect all ideological trends in society, not merely the will of its best organized political forces.

“The constitution is the foundation of the entire political game, and should respect both the majority and the minority,” he said. “It would be difficult for the next elected parliament to reject a draft constitution, especially if it is based on sound democratic principles.”

Other experts believe that the military establishment is also keen to preserve its political and socio-economic interests, especially since it is now confronted with the possibility of having a civilian president for the first time in 59 years.

“The military knows that it should preserve its interests formally and through constitutional mechanisms. They can’t simply rely on the sorts of informal understandings that they had with the previous four presidents,” said Mohamed Attiya of the newly established Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party.

Since the 1952 military coup, all of Egypt’s four presidents came from the military ranks. With a budget of US$4.5 billion in 2010 and extensive networks of companies involved in agriculture, construction, automobile manufacturing, and electronics, many observers believe that the military is the single wealthiest state institution in Egypt.  

Although Egypt’s military establishment has been different from that of Turkey and Pakistan, where the militaries have long developed tangible mechanisms of control through which senior army commanders directly influence politics, the Egyptian army has instead typically reached out to the presidency to preserve its economic interests and direct foreign policy.

Given the traditional concentration of power within the institution of the presidency, Attiya explained, Egypt’s military rulers are aware that the next president will be inherently strong. “In order to avoid the kinds of instabilities that run throughout the Turkish and Pakistani experiments, I think we should clearly define the role of the military in politics,” Attiya said.

Knowing the urgency of settling the civilian-military relationship in post-Mubarak Egypt, presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei suggested on 1 May that the coming constitution should clearly stipulate that the military is charged with responsibility for “defending the secular system in Egypt.”     

In fact, the recently announced Constitutional Declaration provides a clause that could be developed later to grant the military more power. Article 54 stipulates that there should be a National Defense Council to be presided over by the head of the state and authorized to supervise “the necessary means to protect the country.”

“We have to be realistic,” said Attiya. “Given the weaknesses of pro-democracy forces and the overwhelming respect the military enjoys in the street, I think a deal should be sealed in order to protect democracy. We can’t afford a military coup whenever a major political squabble arises, as is the case in Pakistan, Turkey and Thailand.”

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