No less than 40 political parties, groups and coalitions have called for a million man protest 8 July making it clear that if Egypt's new constitution is not written first before parliamentary elections there will be a resumption of the sit-in at Tahrir Square. The million man protest is to be called "Correcting the Track Friday" and is another step in the "Constitution first" campaign in the country. When the campaign was announced, its main aim was to collect 15 million signatures on a petition demanding the constitution be drafted before parliamentary elections.
According to the campaign spokesperson Ramez El-Masry, the campaign managed to collect one million signatures by Monday, 20 June. The campaign is targeting heavily populated areas in the country, choosing Fridays and Sundays to head to mosques and churches to collect thousands of signatures in short order. There are about 1500 volunteers working the streets and also online through Facebook and online groups through out the country. Volunteers are encouraged to talk with their families and friends and to get their signatures. They say they have not met any difficulties, nor faced harassment.
The campaign has already generated a lot of debate and controversy along with fears of a deep polarisation among the Egyptian public. The campaign has a counter campaign running against it.
The constitution first movement is headed by National Association for Change (NAC) and the Free Front for Peaceful Change. It currently includes 54 parties and coalitions. Among these parties, movements and groups is the 6th April Youth, El-Ghad Party, El-Karma Party , the Revolution Youth Coalition, the Revolution Youth Union, El-Wafd Party, the Liberal Egyptians Party, the Democratic National Front Party and the Maspero Youth Coalition.
Deputy Prime Minister Yahia El-Gamal and Minister of Culture Emad Abu Ghazi are among outspoken government officials in favour of having the constitution drafted before parliamentary elections. El-Gamal stated on Al-Hayat TV this week that choosing the constitution first option does not contradict the results of last March's constitutional amendments referendum, because the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) holds the legitimacy of the state, and if it wants to have the constitution drafted first it will be constitutionally able to do so. El-Gamal, as many others, believes that putting parliamentary elections before the constitution carries with it the danger that the trend that will win a parliamentary majority will have also won a monopoly over drawing the nation's constitution.
Article 60 of the constitutional amendments approved in the March referendum stipulates that parliament, once elected, will create a 100-member constitutional committee charged with drawing up Egypt's new constitution. This means that a simple parliamentary majority could have control over drawing up a constitution that could only be amended by a two-thirds majority of parliament, followed by a popular referendum. Since the Muslim Brotherhood remains the largest political party in the country, El-Gamal and many others fear that parliamentary elections first might well be a recipe for usurping the Egyptian revolution and instead of the democratic political system demanded by the revolution, a religious theocratic state would be put in place.
The fear of a religious state and Islamists in control in parliament is reflected in many of the arguments of the constitution first camp. Many fear that Islamists could win the majority in the upcoming elections and have the upper hand in choosing the members of the committee that would draft the new constitution.
On the other side of the argument are those that want to stick to the road map set out by the constitutional amendments voted on positively in March. This side is made up of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. The Muslim Brotherhood has called on Egyptians to respect the results of the referendum in a statement issued on its website by Deputy General Guide Rashad Baioumi.
Meanwhile, Al-Dawa Al-Salafia, a Salafist group in Egypt, issued a statement warning citizens against joining the protest on 8 July, describing it as "suspect". The statement criticised the constitution first campaign and wondered how Egypt could agree to have an unelected provisional assembly draft its new permanent constitution. Centrist Islamist party El-Wasat is also against the campaign, its members outspoken against it in the media. The party's vice chairman, Essam Sultan, criticised El-Gamal, implicitly accusing him of hypocrisy since, as he points out, El-Gamal was "among those who voted 'Yes'" for the constitutional amendments.
Potential presidential candidate and Mohamed Salim El-Awa, a prominent Islamic publicist, criticised Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and El-Gamal for voicing personal opinions regarding the issue in a public lecture earlier this week. "As civil servants, they should not express their personal views," El-Awa said.
There are also leftists, centrists and even liberals who agree to have elections first. One of the liberal faces that joined this front is Amr Hamawzy, political science professor at Cairo university and founder of Masr Al-Hureyya, a liberal party, who stated in a debate about the role of political parties after the revolution earlier this week that "having the constitution first may extend the rule of the military in Egypt, just like in 1952, even though that SCAF made it clear that it supports civilian life completely." The centrist Justice Party also is in the favour of having elections first.
The Justice Party, Masr Al-Hureyya Party, Al-Hadara Party and El-Wasat Party issued this week a statement announcing that they support holding the elections first and that they would respect the results of the March referendum.
Alongside the two main sides in the debate there is a third team of activists and political groups that believe the discussion is a waste of time. Activist Ibrahim Houdabi told Ahram Online that the dilemma of constitution or elections first would not be resolved. "We should pay attention to the street, to the people who are fed up with these endless discussions and who have got other problems," Houdabi says.
Activist Wael Ghonim said on his Twitter account in Arabic: "This is a waste of time and that there is no big difference if the constitution is written before the parliamentary elections or after it because technically if the majority of the parliament is controlled by a single political team, this team can amend the constitution as it wants."
Ghonim added that he believed that the matter had turned into a race between the two teams — an ideological race where each team wants only to win the point regardless of what the majority chose and what the country currently needs. Ghonim and the We Are All Khaled Said Arabic Facebook page are currently calling for an initiative to help the poor in Egypt under the name, "The poor first."
Presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei was among the first advocates of the "Constitution first" position, yet during an interview on Egyptian national TV recently he took a step back, revealing that he sat with Field Marshal Tantawi and General Samy Anan and that he was told that the drafting committee would represent all significant national political forces.
However, there is still a question on how that assembly's members will be chosen. ElBaradei stated that he got positive assurances from the interim ruler. ElBaradei is focused instead on proposing an Egyptian "Bill of Rights". He believes such a bill should have precedence over the constitution, considering that it would deal with the basic rights of the Egyptian citizen. The proposed bill of ElBaradei asserts that Egypt is a civil state in its first article.
Potential presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi meanwhile said in a public rally in Fayoum on Saturday that the demand for having the constitution drafted first is legitimate, and yet we should not stand against the results of March referendum which represents the free will of the people.
Another potential presidential candidate offered a completely different view from that of all other politicians. Former Arab League chief Amr Moussa said on his Twitter account in Arabic that presidential elections should be held first. According to Moussa, "If we have a president with limited powers based on what is mentioned in the constitutional declaration, he can regulate and organise the coming critical period."
SCAF appears to be holding neutral ground so far, respecting the results of the March referendum yet taking in consideration the fears of the political powers demanding the constitution be drafted first. SCAF member Lieutenant General Mohamed El-Assar denied to the media earlier this week a Wall Street Journal report that SCAF would alter the timeline of Egypt's democratic transition if the main political forces agreed.
Between arguments and counter arguments, the constitution first or elections first dilemma appears to be the first in a long series of major questions that will shape Egypt after the revolution. Whether the revolution succeeds or not is linked to what answers will prevail.