If opinion polls are right, by Sunday Egypt will have a new constitution.
The draft proposed by President Mohamed Mursi will secure a slight majority in the national referendum.
The exercise highlights a number of points.
First, almost two-thirds of Egyptians qualified to vote decided to shun the referendum. In the first round held last Saturday the turnout was just over 30 per cent. It is not expected to be much higher in the second round. Thus, if, as predicted by the polls, the text secures half of the votes cast it would have the support of around 16 per cent of the total electorate.
Even with a support base that low the text would have legal legitimacy. But would it also have moral legitimacy, something of crucial importance if the new constitution is to bind Egyptians together?
Those with liberal ideas would find it hard to enthuse about the proposed draft. Yet, it is unfair to dismiss it as a recipe for creating a theocracy patterned on that of the Khomeinists in Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Those who want a Khomeinist or Taliban system have already attacked the Egyptian draft as “selling out to Westernized secularists”. That the state-controlled media in Tehran hates the new Egyptian constitution indicates that we are not witnessing the start of religious dictatorship under Mursi.
Compared to the 1971 constitution, the new draft has a slightly more “Islamic” flavour. But it is not aimed at creating a theocracy as critics suggest. This is made clear in Article 5 that asserts “sovereignty is for the people alone.” Several other articles reinforce that concept.
The Islamic flavour is present in Article 2 and Article 219 that give religious doctrine a slight edge in drafting laws while Article 3 gives the Islamic university of Al-Azhar a consultative role in legislation.
This is even more worrisome in a couple of other cases, notably Article 11 that, implicitly at least, gives the state a duty to propagate and police religion. Article 44 is problematic because it gives the state the right to restrict individual expression in the name of protecting religious sanctities.
However, when all is said and done, what matters is how this constitution will be used as the matrix for laws required to rebuild the state and regulate the public space.
The best texts could be interpreted in the worst way. While a constitution does matter, what matters more is how it is implemented. The defunct Soviet Union had one of the most liberal constitutions in history. The North Korean regime describes itself as a “people’s democratic republic.”
In politics process and praxis are as important as text and subtext. Equally important is perception.
One reason for Egyptians’ disenchantment is Mursi’s decision, possibly taken under pressure from the leadership of the Brotherhood, to speed up the process thus denying critics enough time to amend the draft before the referendum.
The reason for Mursi’s ramrod approach may be a fear that the remnants of the fallen regime, the so-called “foloul”, are trying to sabotage his presidency with help from the “deep state.”
Obviously, the “foloul” would do what they could to retain whatever bit of power they still hold, not to mention regaining part of what they have lost. However, the “foloul” do not control the “deep state”, supposing it exists. The Supreme Constitutional Court, branded by Mursi as part of the “deep state”, dissolved the elected parliament but also certified Mursi’s victory as president.
Together with parliamentary and presidential elections, the referendum provides a fairly accurate picture of opinion in Egypt. Almost two-thirds of Egyptians do not identify with any of the numerous political factions competing for power. This is partly because a year is not long enough to get acquainted with competing political programmes. At the same time, the parties in competition have made little effort to reach out beyond their core constituencies.
The third of Egyptians who feel some kinship with different parties are divided into numerous groups. The single largest is the Muslim Brotherhood whose hardcore base accounts for around nine percent of the electorate. The Salafists and other Islamist groups represent a further six to seven percent. The Islamist bloc as a whole won the support of around 22 percent of the electorate in the presidential election and is set to emerge as the victor in the referendum with around 16 percent of those eligible to vote.
Outside the Islamist bloc, there is a plethora of groups. Apart from “foloul”, there are Nasserists, other pan-Arab nationalists, Socialists, Communists and a smattering of Western-style liberals, not to mention a few personalities with giant-size egos.
The trouble is that most of those engaged in the Egyptian political debate remain prisoners of the old discredited discourse under which those who do not agree with you are branded as “ plotters” or “agents of foreign power.”
Mursi is apparently unable to imagine that some people may be against him because they don’t agree with his policies or, more simply, because they want to take his place. Thus, he castigates them as “plotters” manipulated by “the deep state.” At the other end of the spectrum, Mursi’s political adversaries brand him as a “puppet” in the hands of the semi-secret Brotherhood leadership in a “plot” to forge a theocracy. They cannot imagine that Mursi may well be trying to implement the programme for which he was elected and, again more simply, to consolidate his own position.
Bombarded by the tired vocabulary of plot and counter-plot, Egyptians do not get the thorough, sober and responsible debate that is now possible for the first time. However, one must not despair. Egypt is taking its first steps, albeit awkwardly, in a long journey towards making Article 5 of the constitution a reality.