Head of constitutional reform committee points the way to democracy in Egypt

Salma Hussein, Thursday 17 Mar 2011

In an interview with Ahram Online, Tarek El-Bishry explains why by first amending the Constitution Egypt can elect a parliament and president to set it on the path to democracy


Tarek El-Bishry, the judge who headed the constitutional reform committee whose proposed amendments will be put before a hotly contested referendum on 19 March, believes that the momentum of the revolutionary spirit guarantees that a representative parliament will lead the one-year transitory period towards a permanent constitution.

Parties materialize through elections not in closed rooms, argues El-Bishry, illustrating his point with the experience of the Wafd party in the 1924 elections, one year after the adoption of the 1923 constitution.

"Back then, Al-Wafd party was formed with only ten signatories on its founding statement," says El-Bishry, adding that Al-Wafd connected with grassroots across the country through scattered rather than orchestrated networks of sympathizers during elections.

Only when elected to parliament did people join the party’s committee. "That was how Al-Wafd – which dominated the political scene – was created."  

El-Bishry, the former first deputy of the Council of State, used this story to defend early legislative elections, as proposed by the amendments.

"Parties which refuse legislative elections within two months are those who accepted to participate in Mubarak's rigged elections. How come these parties now refuse free elections?"

On the other side, according to El-Bishry, intellectuals and opponents to Mubarak's regime used to say that the NDP's power is overrated as it is a rootless party with no popularity on the ground, only winning  through rigged elections. "Now they say it is a heavy-weight power on the political scene, and capable of winning free elections. I am afraid to say many of the opponents are afraid of democracy."

In order to undermine the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, El-Bishry calls for a broad-based opposition coalition, "much like what happened in Tahrir Square". The proposition is for a joint list of candidates with a pre-determined quota for each political group.

"This guarantees from this moment a colourful and representative parliament." That was the beauty of the Egyptian revolution; "the heavenly" and powerful coalition among all movements and Egyptians.

The transitory period, which won’t last more than one year and 15 days – according to a tight schedule included in the amendments – lays the ground for a democratic path, El-Bishry makes clear, since it creates another weight of power, parliament, to hedge against the only power on the scene right now: the army.

Instead of a military council or an appointed presidential council to sit atop the political power, amendments suggest that an elected president and an elected parliament lead this transitional period. "Which path is more democratic?" he asks, warning that power is very seductive.

"In 1954, the army announced it will step down from the political scene, two-years after the military coup that ousted the king, but demonstrations called for political parties to be dissolved and asked the army to stay.

“The army bowed. 57 years later, we still suffer from this incident".

If accepted in Saturday's referendum, the amendments to the Constitution provide – along with the first four articles of the current Constitution – a founding statement in addition to the old constitution. "The 1923 constitution remained in effect after the 1952 revolution. It was only in 1954 when a new constitution was put in place. No one said then this is anti-revolution."

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