The need for an Egyptian Bill of Rights

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Saturday 21 Sep 2013

While it has one of the best constitutions in the world, the founding fathers of the United States still found it necessary to write a Bill of Rights to protect society. So should Egypt

More than 200 years ago, Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Some people today want Egyptians to choose between their freedom and their security. The ongoing Egyptian revolution that began on 25 January 2011 is still “in labour to give birth to a newborn from the womb of the old society,” according to a theory by thinker Friedrich Engels. Until today, the people of Egypt have not decided between two options. First, the easy option that seeks stability and is mostly likely to produce a deformed newborn; second, the harder choice of instability to guarantee freedoms that is certain to produce a healthy and strong child.

Egypt as a state and society is going through a critical phase of labour pains that require it to learn from the experiences of other countries that underwent successful revolutions and constitutional experiences that produced a legal framework that protects everyone’s rights, whether they are in the majority or the minority. We can adapt what is appropriate for Egypt and make it our own, and begin where others left off.

Judging by events in the past three months and the past three years, and the rise of demands to exclude segments of the population because of their political views and party affiliation, it would be beneficial to write a charter beyond the constitution. I wrote about this more than one year ago with this news outlet. An Egyptian Bill of Rights would solidly block the tyranny of the state and the majority, as well as the tyranny and deviation of minorities. The bill would maintain equilibrium between the ruler and the ruled, now and in the future, and protect against any tyranny now and for decades to come.

Throughout history, there are many examples of revolutions that were triggered by domestic despotism or foreign occupation, but after revolutions succeed and dramatic changes occur, the goal of establishing a state of justice, equality, freedoms and institutions was not always achieved.

The Iranian revolution claimed to establish a democratic regime and limited the election of a president to two 4-year terms, but ignoring the freedoms and basic rights of Iranian citizens aborted the revolution and thrust the country into the arms of an elected religious and political dictatorship.

The same thing happened after Arab revolutions throughout history, although they were born with overwhelming popular support. Most of the time these revolutions only succeeded in replacing foreign occupiers with indigenous military dictatorships. Middle East revolutions failed to create political democracies or economic prosperity.

Looking westward, the US model is a good example to follow. After the American revolution succeeded, and the Declaration of Independence from the British crown in 1776, one of the most pressing issues facing the nascent country was deciding the form of government, the rights of citizens, their duties towards their states and country, as well as the role of religion in politics.

We should begin where others left off and adopt an Egyptian Bill of Rights similar to the US’s Bill of Rights that was ratified in 1791. The first amendment of the Bill of Rights addresses basic rights such as freedom of religion, speech, the press, and assembly.

A bill of rights would protect us against many problems because it would guard the basic rights of Egyptians irrespective of who wins the ongoing battles, or the composition of the next parliament, or the next president. Such a document should be adopted quickly, even before the new constitution is written and voted on in a referendum two months from now.

The US is home to the world’s oldest written constitution and its constitution is one of the oldest and most popular exports to the world. Many countries, such as Brazil, Belgium, Norway and Mexico learned from the US when writing their own constitutions. But the constitution was not enough in the eyes of many because it did not guarantee the basic rights of citizens, nor safeguard against future authoritarian and unjust practices by the government against the people.

Thus, the Bill of Rights was born at a time when American society did not include religious, ethnic, sectarian or colour-based minorities. The majority of American citizens at the time were white Protestants.

I am not suggesting to duplicate the US constitution or to make it Egyptian, but rather to adopt its spirit and principles. We should copy the patriotism of those who wrote it in terms of championing the public good over narrow interests, while taking into consideration Egypt’s character, as Americans 230 years ago were guided by their own attributes.

News reports about the new Egyptian constitution indicate there are many minefields that must be avoided to be able to push Egypt forward. This will never happen without eliminating restrictions on freedoms that claim to impose the rule of law. Freedoms, whether to practice religion or personal freedoms regarding what to wear, drink and where to live, or freedom of expression, including literature, press and art, must be protected against domination by the state.

Today, Egypt needs to apply a few universal principles such as “separation of powers”, “protecting personal freedoms” and “rights of citizenship” while preventing the tyranny of the majority or the minority, in order to strike an acceptable balance between the ruling majority and the rest of the Egyptian people, now and in the future. This would also protect against despotism now and for decades to come.

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