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Why not an Egyptian model?

The road ahead for Egyptians will be bumpy, but it is one Egyptians must travel, in order to build a modern and democratic state

Salah Al-Nasrawi , Monday 27 Jun 2011
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Views: 2332

As Egyptians continue debating the political system they want following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's regime, the importance of building state and NGO institutions and introducing limits on the political power of competing actors is well recognised.

The current debate over when and how to write a new constitution is essentially one about modeling effective political, economic and social institutions fundamentally different from those that prevailed under the former regime.

It is not surprising, therefore, that internal views of the country's political and social forces over how and when to draft a new constitution diverge.

By referendum in March, proposed by the ruling military council, a timetable was established for the incoming parliament to nominate a 100-member constitutional congress to draft the new document, which would then be submitted for another referendum.

The constitution would cap the nine-month transitional period, suggested by the military council when it took over power after Mubarak's ouster. That would allow the army to go back to its barracks, after it had handed over power to an elected parliament, a president and a government.     

Now the raison d’etre for this transition to democracy, imposed under pressure of time, is being questioned by a wide range of pro-democracy secularists, moderates, leftists, nationalists and advocates of a civil state. These combined forces demand that the new constitution be drafted by an elected assembly before the legislative and presidential polls, tentatively scheduled for autumn.

There main concern is that the Muslim Brotherhood and other fundamentalist and conservative Islamist groups will hold the largest single bloc in the next parliament, thus allowing them disproportionate influence in the constitution-drafting process.

Politically moderate nationalist and a key presidential hopeful, Amr Moussa warned that if the Brotherhood wins one third of the vote in a September parliamentary poll, Egypt will be thrown into "chaos". "There would be no new constitution," he told London's The Guardian.

Many Egyptians hold similar concerns and they are deeply sceptical about pledges by the Brotherhood and some other Islamist-oriented groups that they are committed to building a civil state, guided by Islamic Sharia.

Sharia, or Islamic law, is open to interpretation and many Egyptians fear that these groups, once they are empowered, will take the right to interpret that law into their own hands, or even turn the country into a theocratic state.

The souring debate over the timing of the writing the new constitution has sharply divided Egypt's newly revitalised political forces between pro-democracy groups, who are trying to mobilise the public behind their "constitution first" campaign, and Islamists who vehemently oppose the plan and accuse the secularists of trying to circumvent the outcome of the March referendum.

The Brotherhood, the Salafi movement and other Islamist fundamentalist groups have resisted attempts to postpone the election until a constitution is written. They warn that such an attempt to delay the elections will amount to a coup against the public's will, referring to the results of the March referendum.

About 77.2 per cent voted in favour and 22.7 per cent voted against the constitutional amendments, which also set the timetable for the army-led transitional period and parliamentary and presidential elections.

In a statement Wednesday, the Brotherhood's deputy chief, Rashad Bayoumi, warned that postponing the election will keep the army in control of the country longer than they pledged when they took over. Meanwhile, the Salafi group in Alexandria, one of the largest in the country, warned Wednesday that "the military council's legitimacy stems from the March referendum," and therefore it is duty-bound to hold elections first as scheduled.

In theory, writing the constitution ahead of elections makes sense, but the process would be polarising and politically charged. The assembly that will draft the document must be elected and it is highly unlikely that secularists will be predominate, or that a constitution they would write in spite of Islamists would pass in a referendum.

While Islamists are expected to remain the most powerful and best organised of all political groups, the pro-democracy camp is weak, highly unorganised and so far has been incapable of building political alliances and a strong social power base. Consequently, there is no national consensus on this key issue capable of maintaining an efficient equilibrium among conflicting social, political and economic interests.

The row has increased pressure on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which finds itself in the midst of the political and constitutional wrangling. The army should decide now whether to go ahead with plans for a September parliamentary election or delay it until a new constitution is written.

Meanwhile, SCAF is bound by its own "Constitutional Declaration", which set the timeline for the transitional period, following the March referendum. Technically speaking, Egyptians should be asked to go to poll again to decide whether they want elections first or a new constitution. That would be a huge burden on the army, which should either rescind its "Constitutional Declaration" or find some loopholes to make it possible.

Transition from authoritarianism to democracy is always marked by a period of political struggle and it requires gigantic efforts to prevent the situation from deteriorating into widespread conflict. Mainstream Egyptians want to see a quick end to the transitional period, which they hope will bring about stability, democracy and economic wellbeing, and they expect their new leaders to avoid wasteful disputes.  That means the army should go back to their barracks while political forces accept the democratic rules. There are positive signs that these forces are beginning to adapt and they are more in tune with the new reality and with the people's expectations for the post-transition period.

Since the overthrow of Mubarak, there has been increasing talk about the Turkish model and whether it is suitable for Egypt. The discussions have not reached the level of a national debate but some proponents have been fuelling propaganda with images of Turkey's Justice and Development Party hell-bent on its rising domestic and international influence.

For Islamist-oriented proponents the Turkish model means an Islamist party heads an ostensible democracy, while for nationalists it means an effective role for the army to protect the fledging political process and guarantee the secular lifestyle of the country.

Egyptians should look back to their recent history and learn from it. There is too much resemblance between what happened following the military coup in 1952 and events unfolding since the ouster of Mubarak, especially in regard to the complex relationship between the army, pro-democracy forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, with each having its agenda and interests.

The struggle between the three main forces resulted in a combination of military, bureaucratic and economic oligarchy that ruled Egypt for some 60 years. What had started as a revolution to emancipate Egyptians from internal despotism and foreign hegemony fast turned into prolonged authoritarian rule.

By breaking their fear and toppling one of the most entrenched authoritarian regimes in the Middle East in a peaceful uprising, Egyptians made a miracle happen, and now they need not look for models or examples elsewhere to pave their way for democracy. Moving from authoritarianism to a multi-party system is certainly a bumpy and continuing journey which Egyptians have to take it in order to build democratic institutions and enter the 21st century.

The world can extend a hand and provide lessons from other successful experiments, but only the Egyptians can overcome the obstacles along the rough road ahead and build their new political system.

When they pass the winning post in their race against history, Egyptians will be benefiting from opportunities created by their own sacrifices and maybe also benefit Libyans, Syrians, Yemenis and all other Arabs who will follow.

Egyptians have set a model in the Arab Spring of revolutions and it can be a forceful example for others in transitions to democracy and state building.

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