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One sure thing: A pro-market Egyptian constitution

The make-up of the assembly writing Egypt's new constitution may be bitterly contested, but the body's economists are likely to agree on putting business interests and growth ahead of social justice

Nevine Kamel (Al-Ahram Hebdo), Wednesday 4 Apr 2012
new constitution
Egyptian parliamentarians on Saturday cast ballots to select a 100-member panel that will draft the country's new constitution, amid deep polarization between liberals and Islamists over the process. (Photo: AP)
Five economists will be in charge of drafting the economic chapters in Egypt's new constitution and providing the country with answers to some vital questions.
Will Egypt's economic system be based on capitalist foundations, and what will be the future role of the State when it comes to business?  What rights will citizens have when it comes to health, education and decent work? 
These are just the most pressing economic issues a constitution is expected to clarify. But for the moment the principles they will suggest is anything but certain.
From the eight economic experts intially chosen for the constituent assembly, three have resigned in protest at alleged Islamist domination of proceedings. 
Their withdrawal, however, has left a yet-greater Islamist majority in charge of drafting policy.
The five remaining members are Tareq El-Dessouki, Hussein Hamed Hassan, Maabad Ali El-Garhi, Ibrahim El-Arabi and Hussein El-Qazaz.
  • Tareq El-Dessouki is a businessman and now MP with the Nour Party. Heading the economic committee in Egypt's new parliament, among his duties are settling disputes with Saudi investors in Egypt.
  • Hussein Hamed Hassan, 80 years old, is an expert in Islamic finance who has held executive posts at the Islamic International Bank, Dubai Islamic Bank, Al-Sharja National Islamic and the International Union of Islamic Banks.
  • Maabed Ali El-Garhi is head of the International comittee of Islamic economy and an ally of Salafist Sheikh Mohamed Hassan.
  • Ibrahim El-Arabi is a businessman close to the Muslim Brotherhood and a member of Cairo's Chamber of Commerce.
  • Hussein El-Qazzaz is director of a business consultancy and a friend of the recently-announced Brotherhood presidential candidate Khairat El-Shater.
In contrast to the pro-business group in charge of drafting economic policy, the entire 100-member constituent assembly proposed by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) includes only three workers representatives 
  • Abdel-Fattah Khattab, the former head of the textile workers trade union under Mubarak
  • Khaled El-Azhari, a member of the FJP and former member of the dissolved Trade Union Federation.
  • Maher Khezema, also a FJP member and ex-member of the Trade Union Federation.
This mismatch has prompted complaints from some observers both within and outside the constituent assembly.
"The limited number of economic experts, peasants or workers' representatives reflects the lack of interest the economy holds to those drafting the constitution," says Moustapha Kamel El-Sayed, a political expert who is also a member of the assembly.
"There is a lack of economic experts capable of achieving balance between economic development and social justice. We need representatives of the different currents -- liberal or capitalist -- in order to establish an economic orientation that achieves the right balance," he adds, describing the Muslim
Brotherhood's members as "inexperienced" in economic areas.
"They should have looked for more experts who are not in the Brotherhood in order to develop a comprehensive economic programme," he says.
Centre-left economist Ahmed El-Naggar also withdrew from the assembly but has worked on a document outlining what he says are basic human
rights that should be included in the constitution.
"The right to employment is a fundamental one. It has to be set clearly in the constitution," he says. 
Farid Zahran, a member of the high committee of the Social Democratic Party, also criticises the lack of experience of Muslim Brotherhood representatives. 
"They are simply ... promoting social justice without specifying the means to achieve such a goal," he says.
Mohamad El-Fiqi, head of the economic committee of in upper house of parliament and member of the constituent assembly, admitted that the number of economic representatives is low. But in his view, he added, the economy is not a priority.
"We must first reach an agreement on how the state will look between partisans of liberal and religious democracy. Only after that can we can focus on important economic issues," says El-Fiqi.
He adds that the the upper house's assembly will take into account the views of experts from all relevant fields.
"Not being an economist does not prevent someone from participating in making the economic chapter," he says.
Most commentators do not expect drastic changes, with free-market principles likely to continue and considerable room given to the private sector.
"The new constitution will very probably follow the same orientation of the old one, leaving the market to dominate," admits El-Fiqi.
This conservative approach doesn't sit well with everyone.
Tariq El-Dessouki hope the new constitution will include a set of economic principles stipulating economic activity in both the private and public arenas.
"The private sector will lead the economic activity given the lack of resources of the state," he says. "But the state needs to play the role of monitor.There is a need to establish a real supervisory body to protect the interest of all citizens and not just of a business elite." 
Most agree that specifying the exact role of the state is a must.
"The articles of the old constitution were very superficial and general in this regard. The 1971 constitution tells us the state should monitor economic activities without specifying how. The articles are so imprecise they could be interpreted in any way," says El-Fiqi.
Anit-corruption safeguards could also make an appearance in the new constitution.
"We aim at the introduction of a few articles on the regulating role of the state, as well as some stipulating severe penalties for corruption. To avoid any misinterpretation of the articles they will have to be as precise as possible," El-Fiqi explains.
The previous Egyptian constitution, penned in 1971, dictated a socialist economy wherein the state had a leading role in economic activity.
With the adoption of the free market economy in the 1980s a series of business-friendly laws were enacted. The constitution was only modified in 2007 and any reference to Egypt as a socialist country was abolished.
Political analyst Ibrahim El-Houdaiby believes that basic citizens' rights must form the base of the constitution's new economic programme, which should outline access to health, education and housing. 
"The state must be committed in the constitution to providing such rights," he says. "Don't forget that the revolution erupted at the same time as the state moved to privatise the social insurance." 
El-Houdaiby cites the example of Brazil, which included very detailed chapters on citizens rights in its constitution.
"The economic principles in the constitution must be precise and strong. They must not be malleable to different interpretations," he says.
El-Houdaiby also believes that while the state shouldn't be the country's largest economic operator it must still play an important supervisory role to ensure wealth is not focused in the hands of a tiny minority.
Radical changes, however, seem unlikely.
Samer Soliman, a professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo, believes the interests of the members of the constituent assembly are too similar for there to be much conflict.
"It's unlikely we'll see arm-wrestling over the economic articles given the homogenity of the economic interests of the Islamic majority," he says.
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