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On the path to a better future

In order to honour the 25 January Revolution, all of us must work to bring about a better future, avoiding any temptation to get sidetracked

Abdel-Moneim Said , Sunday 24 Jul 2011

One may find it hard to think clearly about the future when so much is happening during the present. But time is at a premium. The world is not going to stop until we make up our minds, and the region will keep changing while we’re debating what’s coming next. Until last week, I thought, not prematurely I hope, that the country’s main task was to lay down the foundations for the country’s future by writing a new constitution.

We need a constitution that safeguards us from the whims of rulers and the vagrancies of palace or military coups. We don’t need a constitution inspired solely by the revolutionary legitimacy of a charismatic leader, but rather one establishing the rules for checks and balances. Our future constitution must not allow any leader to stay in power forever, or till he dies, gets arrested, or flees the country.

Many people in this country blame former president Hosni Mubarak for staying in power for 30 years. What they forget, however, is that it was the constitution of 1971 that paved the way for this sad eventuality.

The country has been trying for a long time now to think of a new constitution that would be comparable to those of advanced nations. It is a task that I myself have been particularly thinking about over the past few weeks. Now, I believe, is the time to enshrine the Revolution in a document that would set the country firmly on a different course from that we’ve been on in the past.

Others may dispute the fact that this constitution is indeed our top priority. And among those most vocal in the Revolution or the government, a new constitution doesn’t seem to be high enough on the agenda.

The revolutionaries keep asking what the Revolution has achieved over the past five months or so. This question reminds me of another that was often posed before the Revolution; namely, why ordinary people don’t seem to benefit from the country’s presumed economic boom? The answer to both questions is a complex one, and no one seems to be in the mood for anything but short answers. That’s why we end up changing a lot of faces, ministers and governors and what have you, instead of tackling the most pressing issues.

Three things hold this country together: the army, the judiciary and the bureaucracy. The army’s one and only concern is the country’s security. It has no problem with national dialogue, with demonstrations, or with people expressing their opinion with any degree of emotion, so long as these things do not compromise the country’s security or economic well being. The army also doesn’t like it when individuals block parts of a city or a road to traffic or to access by the rest of the nation.

For its part, the judiciary is not in the habit of deciding law cases without sufficient evidence. This is how it works, and this is how it functioned before the Revolution and how it will continue to do business in the future. Our judges challenged the authority of the deposed regime when they had to, and their probity is not in question.

As for the bureaucracy, it is basically the guardian of the state’s memory. The revolutionaries can change the top officials to their heart’s content, but this will not make a dent in the way the bureaucracy acts. If you want to change the bureaucracy, you will have to take considerable time. You will also have to persuade the bureaucracy to change its ways, which is not always an easy task.

The events of last week pitted the revolutionaries against the country’s new authorities in an unprecedented manner, but everyone ended up with something or someone they wanted. The revolutionaries ended up getting a bit of change, with a sprinkling of experimentation. As part of the deal, former members of the NDP Policies Committee – apart from prime minister Essam Sharaf – will have to leave office, I believe, and new faces will be vetted and approved by the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square. The revolutionaries also obtained some concessions concerning the pace of the ongoing trials, something on which they have insisted for a long while.

The authorities, for their part, ended up with a pledge by the revolutionaries to refrain from jeopardising the nation’s safety and higher interests. More importantly, as far as I am concerned, is the fact that the nation will finally get a bill of basic rights, a document that will be useful come the time for writing the new constitution.

The tension was regrettable, as were the shocks felt in the economy and the stock market, but at least something has been accomplished. The roots of the tension are likely to persist, however. One reason is that the revolutionaries are still spending too much time thinking of how to punish the members of the old regime, or whether to have the constitution or the elections first. When they feel frustrated, they start looking for a new enemy – the cabinet or the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), for example.

This can get tedious. Other revolutions come with a ready-made leadership and a vision of the future. Ours has none of this. Apart from wanting to oust the old regime and demands for a minimum wage, the Revolution offered us, initially that is, little to go by. This was when people with leadership skills stepped forward to fill the vacuum and various visions – some copied from the experiences of other countries – were brought to the table.

However, networking among dozens of alliances and parties is not easy. And don’t forget the media, for instead of refereeing the debate it has often offered its own thoughts and then proceeded to take sides.

What we need now, to make a long story short, is the following. First, we need to transfer power from the HCAF to a freely elected parliament. Second, we need to form a constitutive assembly, one to be named by the parliament, which will write a new constitution incorporating and inspired by the bill of basic rights. Third, once a new president is elected, we need the army to go back to barracks and the revolutionaries to go back to their normal work.

These tasks may seem clear and simple enough, and they have been known since the last referendum. But the recent crisis brought them back into focus. Now the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square must come forward with their views on the electoral system (lists and constituencies), the political system (republican and parliamentarian), and the running of the country (centralised or decentralised).

There is a long list of other matters that I, along with many others, have been thinking about for many years. They include the parliamentary quota for workers and peasants, the future of the state-owned media, the organisation of government departments, and the transition to a market economy and the fate of state subsidies. These are complex issues that call for consensus and perhaps negotiation among many groups.

We have until the end of this year to do all of this, six months or less including several national holidays and the month of Ramadan. So we have to get started. During a recent visit to Brussels, someone told me that international monitoring of the Egyptian elections would be impossible if the elections were to take place in September, as the European Union has its own rules and timetable to follow in such cases.

I have always been a proponent of international monitoring, both before and after the Revolution. If we bring foreign referees to our football matches, we must also bring foreign observers to higher-order competitions, such as national elections.

There is more than enough work to keep us all busy, but we have to stay focused. To honour the Revolution, we have to start working on the future. We don’t have the luxury to get sidetracked.

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