For a constitution worthy of the revolution

Nader Fergany , Thursday 19 Sep 2013

Islamists and the people made mistakes during the first transitional period. These should not be repeated in the second period, the most important outcome of which is the constitution

The rule of the so-called Islamist right twice ruined the transition to proper democratic rule for the people of Egypt during the first transitional period. First, by insisting on holding parliamentary and presidential elections before writing a constitution; perhaps now we can understand why they persisted on grabbing power first and foremost.

The second time was when they formed a structurally flawed and legally suspect Constituent Assembly and blocked the High Constitutional Court from deciding on its legality, which resulted in hijacking the constitution in the dead of night. This cost more than LE100 million that reeked of rotten corruption and sly political bribery. Worse still, the project undermined the elements of a modern civil state and they rammed the result through to a public referendum without the mass consensus necessary to sustain it — although the ousted president had vowed he would not do that.

The people made a mistake after the first revolutionary wave of January 2011 by handing over the reins of the revolution to those who did not protect it. Since the people are a key and mighty catalyst of history, their mistakes are grave and result in serious repercussions. But thankfully in the second massive people’s revolutionary wave, the people brought us back — with gracious assistance from the Armed Forces — to the rational and correct path of genuine transition towards democratic rule. This begins by candidly writing a constitution that is worthy of the revolution, followed by elections based on that.

Don’t ruin the constitution for the people again

I worry that the incumbent interim government, in trying to protect national interests, appears be excessively naïve in seeking a cosmetic conciliation at any cost although it would be difficult to sustain. It insists on including elements from the so-called Islamist right in the political process by allowing them to object to the choices and decisions of the interim government, presidency and Cabinet, and even to contradict them.

We don’t know who gave them such privileges that no player in the transitional political process should enjoy. It certainly is not deserved by any player whose modern political history is questionable, and even often objectionable. Perhaps the interim government is frightened, in part for good reason, of the evils of the so-called Islamist right if it is excluded. But participating in conciliation is a privilege that is only deserved for those who have credentials that do not include threats, intimidation or preconditions.

In order to guarantee national interests and protect the people and country from a repeat catastrophe, the interim government must apply revolutionary pace, courage, boldness and resolve — which I believe it has shied away from until now. This was very apparent when the Salafist El-Nour Party refused to participate in the Committee of 50, then reluctantly accepted and objected in advance to some recommendations of the Committee of 10. I worry that El-Nour Party will play the same obstructionist role it played in the former Constituent Assembly, or disable the Committee of 50, or even cause it to self-destruct.

The interim government must not forget that the Salafists were the strike force of the so-called Islamist right in ruining the 2012 Constitution, making it the foundation for a religiously-inclined state and a society stifled by an Islam of hardship and repulsion, based on a fanatic version of Wahhabist jurisprudence advocated by hardliner Abu Taymiyah Al-Hanbali, as interpreted by Mohamed bin Abdel-Wahhab in the barren land of Najd 200 years ago.

The ignorance and narrow-mindedness of hardline Salafist currents is an added layer of fanaticism and repulsion. This can in no way be a vessel for Islam’s tolerance, love and compassion, which are the true attributes of Islam that Salafist hardliners do not apply to an ever-changing and renewable Egypt of the 21st century.

Meanwhile, participating in the political process during this second phase of the transitional period should not be magnanimously bestowed on forces that participated in violence after the second intense wave of the people’s great revolution. It was revealed that large numbers of Salafists participated in criminal terrorist epicentres at Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda squares. Some of the worst terrorist crimes after 30 June, such as hateful attacks in Sinai and throwing children off the top of rooftops in Alexandria, were carried out by those considered Salafist jihadists — which is a misnomer because neither are they jihadists nor followers of righteous salafs (ancestors).

Parties that are an expression of the people and revolution

The timeless debate about the format of parliamentary elections — party lists or individual candidates — reveals the flaws of the current map of political parties and overall political process in Egypt. It reduces the possibility of establishing a parliament that is an expression of the great people’s revolution and guarantees accomplishing its goals of freedom, justice and human dignity to everyone in the land.

There are serious flaws and weaknesses in current political parties; some older parties were created under an authoritarian regime before the revolution, and are well versed in wheeling and dealing with both the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood. One of them, although it inherited a distinguished party that was the leading majority party for decades in Egypt, also adopted such tactics. Meanwhile, others were established after the first massive wave of the great people’s revolution in January 2011.

They all share the same flaw of weak grassroots support and sparse presence among the public across the country, because they lack party action and are controlled by political elites. All of them lack younger generations, especially females, in leadership positions, although youth are the largest age group in Egypt and they earned their stripes on the political arena thanks to their critical contribution to the great people’s revolution and suffered the most at the hands of authoritarian rule that tried to abort the revolution by persecuting activists. Fortunately, it failed.

It is therefore natural that existing parties — that commonly make election deals — are worried about individual candidate elections and prefer electoral lists. The individual system allows some members of the ousted regime to nominate themselves and win, which is fine if the person was not stripped of his political rights by a court order. The same principle applies to individual members of the deceptive Muslim Brotherhood. Individual candidates are also a gateway to parliamentary victories for partisanship and the affluent, especially when electoral circles expanded.

On the other hand, lists were always a means of political bribery, as demonstrated by one historic party that often rented out slots on its lists to candidates. Some opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood today succeeded in previous parliamentary elections by being on the group’s electoral lists; then they discovered the Brotherhood’s misguided ways.

Accordingly, the better option for elections during the transitional phase is to combine the individual and lists systems, on the condition of reducing the shortcomings of both. This includes only allowing those who have been party members for several consecutive months to run on the party list; ensuring oversight of the electoral process; and guaranteeing its integrity by placing strict restrictions on campaign spending.

In the long run, proper democratic rule that expresses the will of the people and is worthy of the great people’s revolution will not be possible without the creation of new political parties that reflect the heartbeat of the street, where the youth and vulnerable are in power. A key launching point for this transition in Egypt’s political life is transforming independent professional unions into political parties, perhaps after some of them merge together.

If there are parties that honestly represent workers and farmers and are popular among this sector, it would be good cause to avoid the discomfiture of eliminating the often misused tenet of allotting half of parliament's seats to workers and farmers. Creating such parties might be a more reliable way to achieve the goal for which this tenet was created in the first place.

In order to truly create these grassroots parties capable of fighting for the goals of the great people’s revolution, the interim government must facilitate their creation and support them even for a limited time — even if this requires postponing parliamentary elections for a short while and moving presidential elections forward.

Hopes for the new constitution

The technical Committee of 10 undertook a huge task in record time for which we are grateful, but under pressure of speed it was unable to remove all the shortcomings of the so-called Islamist right-wing constitution. It is natural that such a committee would not be able to please everyone, so hope hangs on the Committee of 50 — that is representative of everyone across the public spectrum — to reach a consensus that is embraced by the masses. In fact, during the process it would create such consensus.

In order for the Committee of 50 to accomplish this goal its debates should be open to the public, at least through the media, and should consider outside suggestions. Perhaps extending the deadline for the committee is a good idea; surely the intended goal is well worth prolonging the transitional phase by one or two months.

The rapporteur of the Committee of 10 said amendments to the 2012 Constitution are vital enough to serve as the foundation of an entirely new constitution. So perhaps a new constitution worthy of the great people’s revolution is better than a patchwork that is bound to include internal anomalies that could create a disfigured constitution. Revolutions do not succeed through fabrication, and a constitution worthy of the great people’s revolution cannot be a patchwork of a flawed constitution produced by a previous phase that opposed the revolution.

I agree with the Committee of 10’s recommendations to eliminate the Shura Council and delete Article 219 which interprets the principles of Sharia. The latter is a serious issue at the heart of a raging dispute, and thus deserves great attention. This article opens the door to discrimination against non-Muslims and even non-Sunni Muslims.

It also allows the implementation of hardline Sunni jurisprudence that is unsuitable for this era. More critically, it taints Egypt’s constitution with a hateful sectarian hue that harms the tolerance of moderate Islam which throughout the ages was the character of Egypt and its religious beacon Al-Azhar. It also threatens to plunge Egypt into the sectarianism of the Arab region, which serves interests that have nothing to do with national interests.

We witnessed the rise of sectarianism in Egypt recently in the form of hateful and evil acts such as the brutal assassination of our Shia brothers and desecration of their bodies in Abu Al-Numros. I do not know where these terrorists, who claim to be Muslims, conjured up such a despicable notion as desecrating corpses, which Brotherhood followers also recently did to dead policemen. More seriously, this stagnation in doctrinal interpretation is a key feature of their version of jurisprudence, which is a prerequisite for faith and life — although one of its main fountains should be openness towards all schools of jurisprudence.

It is likely that the knowledge of fanatic Salafist factions, who adopt such narrow horizons and outlooks making them so susceptible to mimicking the ancients in yellowing books, does not allow them to understand that great sheikhs who led Al-Azhar issued valuable edicts that truly express the tolerance of Islam. These include Grand Sheikh of Azhar Mahmoud Shaltout’s edict accepting Shia Islam.

The edict states: “Islam does not compel anyone to follow a certain doctrine. We say: on principle, every Muslim has the right to practice any doctrine that is well documented, whose rules are authenticated in their special manuscripts. Anyone who embraces any of these doctrines can convert to any other doctrine; there is no problem with that. Sharia recognises the Jaafari doctrine, known as Twelver Imami Shiite, as a legitimate doctrine similar to Sunni doctrines.”

But where is such tolerance and open-mindedness among those who bombard us with talk of a religion that contradicts our correct understanding of Islam, whose repugnant fanaticism fussed about Iranian tourists visiting Egypt out of fear of a Shia takeover of Egypt? As we know, this triggered the murder of brothers in Islam killed at the hands of misguided riffraff.

Entreat to the Committee of 50

Personally, I prefer the constitution to state the “objectives” of Sharia as the source of legislation and not Sharia as “the main source” of legislation. It is the more accurate and scientifically preferred term, and therefore anyone who claims to be an authority on Sharia principles should be familiar with it. It can never be described as a flexible or ambiguous term, as some extremist Salafists claim the term “principles” to be.

The overall objectives of tolerant Islamic Sharia, which at the core means Islam of the mind, justice, brotherhood, equality, love and compassion, are well known to those who understand the basics of Sharia.

If it is not possible to adopt the objectives of Sharia, then we should safely return to the principles as well as the interpretation of the High Constitutional Court.

The so-called Islamist right has ruined politics in Egypt and transformed it into a battleground using violence and terrorism, so please do not allow them to spoil the identity of righteous Islam in the constitution.

Accordingly, I beg you not to be lenient in allowing the creation of political parties based on religion. This lays down the foundation for a non-civil state that is dominated by religiosity, and a society dominated by a jurisprudence of hardship and labeling others as infidel. This does not mean excluding Islamism in politics in Egypt altogether, as long as it does not advocate hateful doctrines of hardship and fanaticism.

The Committee of 50 should shed traditional authoritarian tendencies when writing the constitution that allow exemptions to protecting rights and freedoms. It should do this by referring such regulation to legal and Sharia rulings, not principles that serve as a foundation of the constitution. It must also stress the state’s commitment to economic and social rights, not just seeking or guaranteeing them, especially for the socially vulnerable, such as children and women. A striking example is the Committee of 10 upholding texts that permit forced and child labour.

In creating governing institutions, we should adopt a mixed system of party lists and individual candidates in parliamentary elections for at least one cycle. It is also beneficial during transition to hold presidential elections first to allow new parties to build their grassroots base. After that, we can hold both elections simultaneously.

At the same time, it is crucial to curtail the powers of the president, especially pertaining to appointing and dismissing the vice president, prime minister and Cabinet, and dissolving parliament. The text must also include a constitutional process for early presidential elections and removing a president based on broad public opinion, not only the opinion of MPs. This model would be reinforced by allowing the people to directly elect the vice president, to ensure the credibility of the position and its occupant.

The status of the Armed Forces of the Egyptian people must be restored to its natural place in democratic constitutions, where no power is greater than that of the people — even the courageous Armed Forces. This would prevent the creation of a military aristocracy that could threaten the civil nature of the modern democratic state we dream of.

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