Our constitution doesn’t need amending—just respecting

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin
Thursday 17 Aug 2017

Some in parliament and the media have recently called for amendments to the constitution. Whether these calls are part of a concrete strategy, the brainchild of a few enthusiastic individuals, or simply a trial balloon to test public opinion, we must not sit silently until the amendments are upon us before speaking up. We should participate diligently in the debate, for inaction means giving in to a foregone conclusion.

I’m personally not, in principle, against amending the constitution. I’m not convinced there are supra-constitutional provisions. Constitutions are issued by the will of the people, and as long as the referendum on the changes is sound, I don't see how we can object to the people amending provisions at any time.

Moreover, with respect to presidential terms, currently four years,m renewable once, there’s also nothing, in principle, that dictates they cannot be otherwise. This is a discretionary issue, and there’s no international standard as long as there are limitations that preclude an open-ended, unfettered presidential term.

That’s in principle. But constitutional amendments are not solely based on what is legal or what is practiced in other states, rather on the conditions and circumstances surrounding them. And on this basis, I join those who reject any change to the constitution at the present time, for three reasons.

First, there is an attempt to suggest that several constitutional amendments are urgently needed, to clarify the appointment and dismissal of ministers, the jurisdictions of various courts, and the rights of dual citizens to run for parliament.

All these proposals are possible and perhaps useful, but they aren’t so pressing as to require a constitutional amendment, especially since the current constitution was ratified barely three years ago.

The fact is that no matter how many amendments are proposed, the drive to amend the presidential term of office is the primary impetus for the campaign; all other proposals have been floated to muddy the waters and show that the purpose of the amendments is not to change one specific provision.

But this fact will remain fixed in the public mind, no matter if a few other provisions, or even the entire constitution, were to be amended as well.

Second, the justifications given by partisans of the amendments are unpersuasive. It’s been said, for example, that the constitution was issued in a time of instability and so doesn’t suit the stability we have now reached.

This argument gets things precisely backwards: further amendments to the constitution are an expression of instability. It’s also been said that gains made on the ground require more time to come to fruition.

If that were true, it would mean we’ve lost hope that national institutions are capable of following through on national projects and long-term plans, that the completion of such plans are dependent on one individual.

Some have even argued that extending the presidential term would save the state the considerable expense of convening presidential elections every four years—a piece of sophistry that doesn’t deserve a response. The fact is there are no real grounds or insurmountable deadlock that require constitutional amendments now.

Third, every action has a political and symbolic significance as well as an objective meaning. Even if amending the presidential term of office were theoretically legal, it would be a flagrant demonstration of the unwillingness to accept any constitutional limits to rule.

The ease with which the constitution and laws can be changed erodes the credibility of both and bolsters the public’s belief that the law is an instrument of rule and power, not a tool for achieving justice and a balance of powers. This is a grave turn that would take  the country back decades.

Amending the constitution today is not an urgent task and should not even be on the agenda. Much more important is respecting the one we have, applying its provisions diligently and without delay, and reviewing all the laws and regulations issued in recent years that contravene it.

This will bolster the public’s conviction in the importance of the constitution and its stability, which is the basis of real social stability.

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