Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Go slowly, Egypt is in a hurry! | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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After decades in which politics was a forbidden fruit consumed in secret, Egypt is indulging in a feast of political topics with an appetite bordering on gluttony.

In a society where people hid their views, leaving things to propagandists in the state-owned media or clandestine dissidents, everybody suddenly has an opinion about everything.

(An acquaintance, a business executive in Cairo, complains about arguments with his driver over the shape of a new constitution.)

All that is good news because it shows that Egypt is a buoyant society determined to prevent small elites from regaining the monopoly of discourse and decision.

In some cases, a constitution is essentially prescriptive.

It sets out the way things ought to be, not the way they actually are.

The defunct Soviet Union boasted arguably the most democratic constitution in the world. And, yet, Stalin was able to massacre millions in the name of building socialism. With a few modifications, the constitution of the Khomeinist imamate in Iran is copied from that of the French Fifth Republic. Egypt’s current constitution is not all that bad either. The problem is that those who wrote it violated it for 50 years.

The tradition according to which a nation-state should have a constitution was invented by the “Founding Fathers” of the United States who wanted to differentiate their newly created republic from European monarchies based on the concept of the divine source of power.

In the past two centuries the practice of having a constitution has spread to all continents. Nevertheless, some countries, among them the United Kingdom and Israel, manage to do without written constitutions.

A constitution should be short and vague.

If too long, it could become a hunting field for lawyers and bamboozlers even when the two are not the same. If too precise, it could prevent the use of common sense to decide issues.

A constitution should also reflect reality rather than depict an ideal. An idealistic constitution is sure to be violated in practice.

The Muslim Brotherhood considers the constitution as a document setting out maximum agreement among citizens. However, the opposite is true. A constitution should focus on minimum agreement, the lowest common denominator. It should state principles that the vast majority would adhere to without ifs and buts.

Seen from that angle, the opening gambits in the Egyptian constitutional debate appear unrealistic. This is not a game of chess that must end up with a winner and a loser. Imposing a constitution that ignores the Sharia altogether may not be desirable because a majority of Egyptians would not accept it. At the same time, a constitution based exclusively on Sharia could become a recipe for discord, shattering the democratic dream.

Sharia was developed to deal with issues of private life. In non-Islamic societies those issues are dealt with through private contracts guaranteed by the law of the land. As long as such contracts are not against other citizens, the state would recognize and ensure their enforcement.

A mention of Islam in the constitution should be enough, unless the Islamists think that Sharia is more important than Islam itself.

The Islamists who have won a majority of seats in the new parliament appear anxious to rush the process and impose their maximalist views.

There is no logical reason to rush things.

Egyptians have always recognized the virtues of patience. This is why they have managed to survive storms for thousands of years. Egypt’s history develops with rhythm and tempo that are different from those of television news flashes.

It is surprising, to say the least, that some participants in this debate are focusing on how to describe the Egyptian “identity” in the new constitution. Well, after 6,000 years, don’t we know who Egyptians are?

Inspired by Parisian intellectuals, this “identity” business may be a problem in Western European countries unable to cope with the multiculturalist mess they have created. It is not a problem in Egypt unless some idiotic idealists make it one.

To describe Egyptians simply as Arabs would be telling only part of the story. To deny their Arab-ness would leave another part out. Egyptians are Egyptians, an historic people, a cocktail of cultures and experiences distilled over millennia. Few nations in the world have the solid “identity” that Egyptians, regardless of their religious faiths, could boast about.

Demonstrators demanding “secession from Egypt” in Port Said and Alexandria may be a colorful sight but are barking up the wrong tree.

An Egyptian may leave Egypt but Egypt would not leave any Egyptian, even at the other end of the world.

During their uprising, Egyptians manifested a degree of moral discipline and integrity that won admiration all over the world. Those same qualities are needed to preserve the fruits of their victory. If they fail, they could re-visit the horror movie of 1962 when the military and Islamists ganged up together to exclude the people from the debate.

Egyptians would do well to give writing a constitution all the time needed. The Americans took 13 years to establish their constitution. And, then, they had to introduce more than two dozen amendments to lubricate its wheels. Despite the General’s unquestioned authority, France’s Gaullist constitution was four years in the writing. More recently, the Iraqis took almost three years to come up with a constitution.

A Nescafe approach, an “instant” constitution, is in no one’s interest. In this context Marshal Foch’s dictum “Go slow, I am in a hurry!” is good advice.

In any case, while despotism is speedy, democracy works slowly. Milan Kundera, who wrote a book in praise of slowness, describes this as “the aesthetics of civilized life.” In democracy, you have to argue, haggle and compromise. You have to persuade and be persuaded, never getting quite what you wanted. You have to take into account every opinion, including that of your driver.