Official and media circles are increasingly supportive of the idea that confronting terrorism necessitates granting extra-constitutional powers to the police and other state organs. Constitutional rights and guarantees, they say, are a luxury that society cannot afford in the present circumstances. And in any case, this is a temporary situation and things can be put right when the war on terrorism is over, security is restored, and the economy picks up.
Perhaps it’s a step forward that the proponents of this view state it explicitly instead of searching for legal interpretations and justifications, especially since much of the public is receptive to this argument, seeing the state’s commitment to the constitution, law, and justice as superfluous in light of ongoing terrorism and violence.
Nevertheless, suspending the constitution—whether explicitly or implicitly—is a serious mistake. Neither will it bring security and stability nor will it spur economic development. In fact, it will impede them, for several reasons:
First, the constitution is not a menu of high-minded principles and values that one orders from depending on circumstances. It is a legal document that stands supreme over all legislation. It was approved by the Egyptian people to be binding on everyone in all cases, including under war and terrorism. Disregarding its provisions now means destroying the sole foundation for future progress and denying the current legitimacy of the state.
Second, Egyptian society is divided along political, sectarian, class, and generational lines—even across football clubs. These divisions and the resentments they generate cannot be overcome without upholding the rule of law and equal justice for all and preserving the judiciary as the sole arbiter of conflicts in society.
Setting aside the constitution and law encourages people to settle their disputes through thuggery, favoritism, money and influence, customary instruments, media and PR campaigns, and all manner of means that reflect the absence of the state and law and only feed social resentment and division.
Third, the belief that one can modulate commitment to the constitution and law—increasing compliance in times of security and stability, ignoring it when security and economic conditions deteriorate—is a flawed, dangerous notion. Upholding the constitution and justice is not simply about enforcing legal texts. It is a habit and a mode of conduct to which people adhere because it achieves their common interest and allows them to know their rights and duties.
Postponing law and justice, even temporarily, sends a dangerous message to society, encouraging its members to yield to anarchy in their everyday interactions—behavior that is difficult to change when there’s no longer any reason for it.
Fourth, the national solidarity needed to confront terrorism will not be achieved as long as the constitution is disregarded. It is injustice of all kinds, social and legal, that is now precluding this solidarity because it weakens the sense of belonging and citizenship.
The only safety valve for society is the certainty that all are equal before the law. And solidarity is needed not only to counter terrorism, but to face manifold challenges, from protecting state resources, maintaining public facilities, and confronting harassment and thuggery to resisting corruption, supporting the poor, eliminating sectarian strife, and ending tax evasion.
None of these challenges can be met solely with the might of the state and the security apparatus. It requires social cohesion and solidarity, and citizens’ conviction that there is a law that dispenses impartial justice for all.
Fifth, people seek a type of economic development that does not profit only the few with influence, connections, and wealth. They want development that benefits everyone and can realize a sustainable advance in standards of living.
Such development is impossible amid a general culture that does not respect the law and official and media rhetoric that advocates postponing the implementation of the constitution. Deferring civil rights and liberties, even temporarily, will necessarily erode the law and weaken its institutions in all spheres, including the economic, heralding the return of favoritism, corruption, and monopoly, all of which hinder economic development.
The state’s commitment to the constitution, law, and justice is not merely a moral choice, though it may be that. It is also a practical choice dictated by a desire for stability, social cohesion, and economic development. It is imperative for us to rally around and defend the constitution—all of us who want both the nation to defeat terrorism, and to emerge from that battle with the rule of law, the principles of justice, and state stature intact.
The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is a former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investments.
This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday, 28 July.