Defining the meaning of the new Egyptian state

Samer Soliman , Tuesday 6 Mar 2012

Writing a constitution is no simple matter that can be rushed; there are key issues about Egypt's identity and the definition and role of the state that must be addressed

At last, we have arrived at the juncture of writing a constitution. This is a critical crossroads in the post-Mubarak phase since it dismantles the July 1952 regime and builds a new one that as yet remains undefined.

The people have arrived at this moment after a long year of spilled blood, pain and frustration over how little has been achieved compared to our aspirations.

The journey we took to reach this milestone of writing a constitution is similar to the voyage millions of Egyptians make from their homes to work on public transport, such as bus, metro, microbus, where they are subjected to hardship and humiliation.

During the past year, the people have also faced hardship and humiliation, but what is important is that we have finally arrived at this juncture. Now, we must dust ourselves off, nurse our wounds, take a deep breath and concentrate on drafting this key document that will decide a large part of this country’s future.

The constitution of a country is like the identity card of citizens; the ID carries their name, sex, age, job and address. We are in the process of writing a new identity card for post-Mubarak Egypt. The country’s official full name is likely to remain the same, Arab Republic of Egypt – of course no one wants to replace the word ‘republic’ with ‘kingdom’ which was Egypt’s name after independence until King Farouk was dethroned. Neither will ‘Egypt’ be removed from the official name of the country, or else what would replace it: ‘The Republic of Kemet?’ ‘The Republic of Black Soil?’ As for the third part of the name, ‘Arab,’ it is almost certain to stay.

In short, the name will remain unchanged despite long debate over the past decades reconsidering Egypt’s identity. Often times, this debate over identity was simply a window through which Egyptians viewed and familiarised themselves with their history, or an indirect way to wrangle about choices for the future. Or it could have been a way to waste the people's time while the regime’s henchmen excelled at pilfering and dismantling the country one piece at a time.

Egypt’s official name will remain the same – and at least those in charge are not foolish enough to entertain such comical names as those used by Gaddafi to describe his own country ‘The Jamahiriya' or the 'Great Republic';, neither will they name the country after the ruling family as in our sister state Saudi Arabia.

There are three fundamental issues about Egypt’s identity that must be extensively debated. First, what is the definition of a state? Here, the ID of a country is different from that of the citizen since there is no definition of the person. For example, we do not write that so-and-so is a person because that would be redundant, since they are neither bird nor plant. However, the identity of a state requires definition, at least in the preamble of the constitution. In other words, what is a state? What does it actually mean in practical terms?

This is not a trivial matter since the word state is found in all of Egypt’s constitutions from 1923 until 1971 with two different definitions being used. We must distinguish between them and resolve the difference. The first sense is Egypt or the entire country, including the people, the territories and government. This is the definition used in the 1923 constitution.

Meanwhile, the amended 1971 constitution states: “The Arab Republic of Egypt is a state democracy.” Article 29 states: “Ownership is subject to oversight by the people and is protected by the state,” which means that the people are a separate entity from the state.

What, then, is this state that is distinct from the people? The state here means all public institutions that are owned by the people that exercise sovereign functions as an agent of the people. If this was the implicit definition the writers of the constitution intended, it would be better that the next Egyptian constitution be more explicit on this point to prevent confusion and confirm a tenet that was forgotten during a long history of authoritarianism. Namely, that Egypt is more than the sum of its state institutions.

And hence, we should stop using the word state in any other context and instead use the word republic, and thus the Arab Republic of Egypt is sovereign over its territories, people and state. The matter should be debated further by our constitutional experts who would give us a final opinion.

The second key issue regarding the state of Egypt’s identification is its function; what exactly does this state do? Of course, in the next constitution we will stipulate that the state is in the service of the people and the people's prosperity. The question is how. Here, it is critical to avoid such structural language and phrases such as Article 24 in the 1971 Constitution, which asserts that the state “sponsors production and works on economic and social development.” At any rate, there should be no lies or pretense that designate functions to the state that in reality it does not in any way perform.

For example, Article 13 of Egypt’s discarded constitution notes: “Work is a right and duty and honour of the state.” But this is a lie because in reality the state does not provide work for all its citizens, and cannot do this except through centralised planning – which is not on the agenda in any sense. Yes, employment is a right but the state is not obligated to provide it for every citizen. Instead it must create incentives for job creation in public and private sectors, and compensate those who are seeking employment but cannot find a job, as in countries where there is social justice through unemployment benefits.

Thus, defining the functions of the new state of Egypt is absolutely crucial because it will designate responsibilities to the state that the people agree to assign to their public institutions. Naturally, the basic functions of the state are security, defence, justice, coining currency, and others that are undisputed. However, the state’s economic and social functions must be extensively debated and negotiated and consensus reached because it will define the relationship of the state with its people.

The internal structure of the state (the governing system) is the third key topic in the new constitution and deserves a separate article, but here I am trying to show that writing a constitution is of critical and crucial importance and cannot be rushed helter-skelter within weeks or by copying and pasting entire chapters of a weak and prosaic constitution. It is not simply about penning a document that will be printed and distributed to the people.

The debates in which the people will participate, especially the educated, concerning the foundations of the state, its functions, relationship with the people, and limitations on intruding in the lives of individuals is an enormous educational and political process. In the end, it will allow society to know itself and have all sectors in society reach compromises on differences of opinion on the state, its functions and limitations that for decades were avoided and passed over to successive generations.

The moment of truth is now; let debate take its full course.

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