Egypt’s civic state

Emad Gad , Friday 24 Jun 2011

The debate over constitution versus elections first is essentially a struggle between those with a civic vision for Egypt and those who seek an Islamist state

We can summarise the ongoing debate in Egypt around several topics in one sentence: “A battle over the character of the Egyptian state”. Those who purport that elections must be held on time in September or that elections should come first, followed by the new constitution, are essentially or mostly advocates of Islamist forces who believe that the next regime in Egypt must be Islamist. They advocate the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood or its party Justice and Freedom which upholds the banner of "a civic state based on Islam", as well as Salafi and jihadist forces and movements who call for a theocracy that applies sharia (Islamic law) to everyone – and anyone who disagrees should leave for the United States or Canada.

Those who proclaim that the constitution should come first are essentially all the civic forces in Egypt who believe that the next regime in Egypt should be founded on the principle that the people are the ones who have sovereignty and are the source of power. These are the people who believe that Egypt cannot become a theocracy because it is diverse and is home to multiple religions and sects. They also believe that combining politics and religion will only result in dictatorship, regardless of the religion involved, since in all religions, once an alliance is struck between men of politics and men of religion, the result is an authoritarian regime which uses religion to give a ruler legitimacy and enable him to sabotage and undermine the image of the opposition.

Those who demand that the constitution should come first have many reasons for this, including unstable security conditions. They also argue that the constitution is the foundation of all laws and therefore should precede elections to define the regime and relationship between the three powers within it. It is illogical for only one power to have the right to define this relationship and its scope. At the same time, drafting a constitution is not a prize awarded to those who have a majority in parliament under certain conditions, but instead is a process of consensus among various parties written up by a group with an array of backgrounds and expertise. It is not exclusive to legislators or men of law.

Just as the decision to go to war is too precarious to be left to the military, writing a constitution is too risky to be left to men of the law. The role of lawmakers is to write up the agreed-upon principles and foundations in the format of legislation, as well as to fine-tune legal terms and highlight legal issues of which non-experts may not be aware.

The resolution of constitution or elections first must be an outcome of consensus by all political forces and schools of thought in Egypt, not through threats and promises, or sanctifying the product of a political process. Those who say that elections should come first are defending respect for the results of the referendum on amending the constitution, and argue that any discussion of the constitution first is a form of overturning the results of the referendum. They say it is also a “betrayal” of the will of the majority that approved constitutional amendments. To this end, they use expressions such as “a coup against legitimacy”, “betrayal of the majority” and other language which is inappropriate to describe the outcome of a modernising political process in a country which just overthrew an authoritarian regime and is seeking to build a democracy.

This condition requires the adoption of trial and error, namely that developments might reveal a mistaken direction and require amending the priority list or altering developments. These are all political issues open to debate and not sacred texts which are off limits for discussion or revision. On the contrary, trial and error allows every case or country to build its own democratic experiment through self-evolution, to avoid importing a prefabricated model from abroad.

Egypt, a democratic country before the 1952 revolution, does not need a foreign model or different cultural environment. Instead, it needs to reactivate its democratic experience after abstaining from it for nearly six decades, and therefore we should give the various and diverse political forces in Egypt a chance to rebuild the democratic experience objectively.

Accordingly, certain political forces should not advance their direct interests at the expense of building a pioneer democratic Egyptian experiment. If the Muslim Brotherhood believes it will win a majority in parliament, these numbers will not diminish if the constitution is drafted first or if parliamentary elections are postponed for a few months until a constitution is written. As for rhetoric about a coup against legitimacy and circumventing constitutional amendments, this is nothing more than borrowing religious terminology and imposing it on a political debate, whose main aim is to undermine the civic nature of an Egyptian state and quickly pounce on the reins of power to start a self-serving vision at the expense of the civic character of the state in Egypt.

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