“Her length is a month's journey, and width is ten months. Her sky is clear, her Nile is sweet and her land is most fertile. Her women are unique wonders, and her men are toys. A piper will bring the people together, and a stick will separate them. They belong to him who conquers and controls.”
With these words, a 7th century Muslim general is said to have described Egypt. Though the quote’s authenticity is unconfirmed, Egypt’s history has lent credence repeatedly to the portrayal of a people resigned to the rule of successive potentates, be they pharaohs, emperors, caliphs, sultans, khedives, kings, or presidents. Yet, in the wake of the nationwide civilian revolutionary movement that began on 25th January 2011, the supposed passivity of the Egyptians has been challenged like never before.
In a mere 18 days, the Egyptian people succeeded in peacefully toppling an autocrat who had ruled them for almost 30 years. However, in as much as the millions of protesters were certain of what they did not want, namely the continuation of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency, they remain unsure of who or what they wish to take his place. With power now transferred to the Supreme Military Council, Egypt stands at a crossroads: one path leading to a slightly amended political system, a vaguely revised constitution, and much vaunted ‘stability’ (the Egyptian attribute most favored by Western governments); the other path offering comprehensive reform, a new constitution, and the fundamental re-balancing of the citizens’ role in the country, but also the prospect of social, economic, and political upheaval. Not for the first time in Egypt’s recent history, those seeking revolutionary change are faced with stark choices.
The historical comparison with the abdication of King Farouk in July 1952 looms large: the military fulfilling their obligation to defend the security and freedom of the people, the departure of a hated head of state, army officers assuming governmental power, and the initial overflowing of the people’s joy. But the difference is clear. Though drawing its inspiration from the overwhelming public mood, events in 1952 were army led – a ‘top down revolution’ with the military initiating change, and the people called upon to give their consent, but not their input. The unprecedented nationwide movement of 2011 is the reverse. This time, it is the people who have overthrown the dictator, and the military who have been asked to join the revolution. This time, it is the people who are staking their claim to determining the destiny of their country.
Notwithstanding the undeniable public enthusiasm that followed the fall of the monarchy, the lack of popular participation in the revolutionary period thereafter led to a host of problems that impeded the realization of its stated aims. The negative consequences included a constitutional system framed in the absence of genuine public consultation (arguably influenced more by the political experiences of France than of Egypt), the construction of a political system thoroughly ill-suited to civilian party political participation, and a strict authoritarian structure where the protection of basic civil liberties became little more than illusory, as evidenced by the brutality visited upon peaceful protesters in recent weeks. Whilst one would have to be lacking in patriotic spirit to be unmoved by the inspirational preamble of the existing constitution, which captures the essence of Egypt’s achievements, travails, and hopes, one would similarly have to overlook the fact that the specific articles throughout the rest of the document have proved to be exiguous in practice, unworthy of the stirring prose of the preamble, and insufficient to realize the lofty goals stated therein.
Egypt now has the chance to rectify the mistakes of the past. Yet, despite the military’s suspension of the constitution, and dissolution of a parliament born of a rigged election, the cabinet appointed by Mubarak in the dying days of his presidency (containing persons discredited entirely in the view of the protesters) remains in place. A revolution that achieves only one of its objectives is a revolution undeserving of the name. Millions did not protest merely for the removal of Mubarak, and cosmetic changes to a discredited system. Those who were cut down by agents of the regime in the streets of Cairo, Alexandra, Suez, and beyond gave their lives for a new system where the future of the country would be shaped by the people, not by the whims of a handful of politicians and businessmen divorced from the reality of the country’s plight.
The inescapable conclusion is that, at present, this is an unfinished revolution. However, many opposition figures and organizers of the youth movement have expressed confidence and satisfaction in the transition process being outlined, including the pledge to complete constitutional amendments within 10 days, confirmed by a popular referendum in two months, and elections in September. Put simply, this is the first time in the six millennia of Egypt’s existence that the country’s civilian population has the opportunity to select their own leader free of monarchical control, foreign occupation, the constraints of Cold War politics, or the domination of one man desperate to retain his power. Egyptians should not surrender this moment, or the incredible gains that they have won with their blood.
To embrace constitutional amendments in 10 days as progress ignores the sophistication and complexity of the constitution's role. It would take a team of constitutional scholars days to perform a mere cursory review of the constitution. To expect the members of the youth movement, the opposition parties, and the military guardians of the country to complete both the review and amendment process in a mere 10 days is asking too much of even the most loyal of public servants. Moreover, such an objective suggests a lack of appreciation of the power of such a sacred document in the functioning of the state. In terms of the impact that it will have on the lives of all Egyptians, only the holy scriptures of the country’s respective religious communities are of greater importance. At this unique juncture in Egypt’s history, it is necessary for the people to take the time to contemplate the future that they seek for themselves, their children, and their children's children, and how they hope to achieve it.
The enormity of this task has been ignored by many. For decades, Egypt has labored under a constitution that entrenched the power of the president at the cost of the legislature (reduced to a rubber stamp parliament), the judiciary (harried, harassed, and ignored), and the citizenry (rendered mere spectators in the political life of the state). It is a document in need not of isolated amendments, but of wholesale revision and re-drafting. Some may deem 10 days sufficient to provide the country with an interim solution to facilitate the conduct of government during these months of transition, but it cannot suffice thereafter. The people have won the opportunity to write their own future, carry constitutional conversations, and ultimately select their form of government. An intrinsic fear of reactionary vested interests, and the intrigues of imperial powers meant that the Egyptians lost this opportunity during an earlier revolution. They cannot afford to lose it again.
A fully-fledged constitutional convention, with participation open to all political, social, and professional groups now contributing to the national dialogue, would be the forum and the mechanism by which such hopes could be realized. Egyptians will need to grapple with crucial topics, such as, among others: the extent they wish the executive branch to have a leading role (as in the U.K. for example), or to be constrained by powerful legislative and judicial branches (as in the U.S.A.); whether there should be a public right to recall of the President (as in Venezuela), or whether a parliamentary vote of no confidence should be the instrument to force the fall of the executive; whether their civil, French-influenced legal system is satisfactory, or whether modifications and innovations are required; and which voting system (first past the post, alternative vote, proportional representation, etc.) is best suited to their country. Crucially, they will have to consider the best means of reconciling the avowedly religious nature of most Egyptians with their aversion to religious pre-eminence in state affairs, recognizing that the authoritarian strands of French laïcité, and Turkish Kemalism are as alien to Egypt as Iranian Wilayat al Faqih.
The military have the requisite moral authority and popular support to make this constitutional convention a reality. As in times gone by, the military have responded to the call of their countrymen. If they can now facilitate the emergence of a new constitutional order that truly empowers Egypt’s citizens, they will have justified the protesters’ declaration that “The army and the people are one”.
The gravity of this moment should not be lost on anyone, nor should the fact that genuine threats wait in the wings. One year from now, the Tahrir Square spirit is likely to have diminished, while erstwhile factionalism will have returned. Where on 11th February 2011 stood simply Egyptians, in one year shall once again stand fragmented and opposing groups: rich and poor; secularists and religionists; left wing and right wing; and, though one would like to believe otherwise, potentially Muslims and Christians. At this point, while many hope that a government of national unity will emerge from free and fair elections, there is no guarantee that those holding a majority in a new parliament will be willing to defer to the concerns of smaller political groups, or that a newly elected President will not determine that the electoral mandate given to him by the people should result in policies determined by him alone. The present leaderless commitment to national unity is one of the Egyptians’ greatest assets. They must use it while they still have it.
Now is the time to harness this passionate and joyous nationalism and direct it towards national renewal through a new constitution that confirms and protects the victories that have been won at such great cost. Constitutional patriotism has the potential to be the embodiment of the nationalism that was displayed so visibly in the protests.
Egyptians should now consider what it really means to build a society based on genuine electoral accountability and popular representative government, beyond placing an index finger in an ink-bottle, and offering victory signs. To develop bona fide political parties, as opposed to fragmented and marginal groupings, to learn what they stand for, what their candidates will do for the economy, the healthcare system, the education system, unemployment, and across the full range of political issues.
These are the questions that need to be addressed, debated, and resolved, and the only means of so doing is through a constitutional convention. If the people are truly invested and involved in building the new system, they will respect and defend it against all threats, be they foreign or domestic.
This is how Egypt can honor their fallen heroes. As wonderful as it was to hear the assembled millions in squares across the country recite in unison the words of the national anthem, one might wonder how even more meaningful would it be to hear them recite the words of a new constitution that truly enshrined the freedoms for which they struggled, and for which their kinsmen gave their lives.
Egypt’s new revolutionaries, who are now being given the false choice between ‘stability’ and chaos, should remember that a graveyard is stable, but offers no prospect for the blossoming of new life. Egypt’s history, culture, and religious beliefs compel Egyptians to strive for the best, and seek wisdom from every quarter in which it can be found.
Let the world’s oldest nation state learn from its own experiences, and those of other states. Let the Egyptians frame a constitution worthy of the sacrifices made in the name of its Revolution, and all righteous revolutions, struggles, and battles that their noble people have fought throughout their history. For a new Egypt to rise up, the peaceful march of reform must continue. Until then, the mission is not complete.
Tamer O. Bahgat is a transnational lawyer with an International Law Firm in London, with experience in corporate and international law, with a focus in economic and constitutional reform.
Khalid El-Sherif is a legal and policy professional with experience in regulatory reform, public and private international law, with a focus on development in the Arab World.