Voice

The Battle for Egypt's Constitution

The Middle East Channel Editor's Blog

On December 26, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi signed off on a new constitution. It was not a cheerful occasion for many politically active Egyptians, following one of the most intensely, dangerously polarized months in recent Egyptian history. The bitterly controversial two-round referendum approving the constitution revealed the depth of the political and social chasm which had been torn through the political class. I offered my own thoughts on the meaning of these events late last month in my "Requiem for Calvinball," but that was only one part of the wide range of coverage on the Middle East Channel of coverage of the crisis. So I'm pleased to announce here the release of POMEPS Briefing #17: The Battle for Egypt's Constitution, collecting our articles on the constitution and the political landscape left in the wake of this explosive crisis.

The constitutional drafting process, as Nathan Brown pointed out just before the explosion of the crisis, had been a shambolic mess for over a year and little resembled academic conceptions of how a constitutional process should unfold. There was little high-minded public discourse here, little search for wide national consensus, little attempt to reach beyond political interest to seek a higher dimension of political agreement. Rebuilding a ship at sea, in Jon Elster's endlessly evocative phrase, never looked so perilous. Complaints about Islamist domination of the constituent assembly had led to mass resignations by non-Islamist members and excoriating commentary in the Egyptian public sphere. Backroom battles over the powers of state institutions intersected with principled arguments over matters such as the role of Islam and public freedoms. This was not the heady stuff of the great constitutional assemblies celebrated in the history textbooks -- even before the surreal, late-night, non-deliberative ratification process. 

Those byzantine battles might have continued indefinitely had Morsi not seen the opportunity to act more forcefully. His diplomatic success in brokering a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas (see Brumberg's essay, and mine) brought him unprecedented international acclaim, and perhaps emboldened him to press his advantage at home. He first issued a presidential decree of breathtaking scope (see Revkin's essay), which in principle (though of course not in in reality) placed him above all oversight and accountability. His brazen power grab succeeded where almost everything else had failed -- it got Egyptians back out into the streets protesting. But those protests quickly turned ugly and violent, revealing intense polarization rather than societal unity, as Muslim Brotherhood supporters attacked protests and Brotherhood offices were burned to the ground across the country (see Goldberg's essay). 

The diagnosis of the nature of the crisis is itself controversial. Indeed, as Hamid points out, the Islamists and their opponents seemed to be living in almost entirely different conceptual worlds. Was this the unfolding of an Islamist scheme to consolidate theocratic rule, or the ungainly and poorly executed endgame of a horribly mismanaged transition? Was it a renewal of the January 25 revolution or the dividing of that revolutionary unity into two hostile camps? Hanna's essay incisively argues that Morsi and the Brotherhood appeared to aspire to domination rather than to building a consensual political system, taking their electoral victory as a mandate for majoritarian politics. I pointed to the greater analytical significance of the absence of any institutional constraints, which made the fears of such alleged Brotherhood ambitions difficult to contain. With the Brotherhood and Morsi seeming to repeatedly break their word and escalate the situation, and with blood in the streets and furious words everywhere, no consensus seemed remotely possible.

The constitutional referendum set the stage for exceptionally important parliamentary elections, now scheduled for April. For the first time in ages the divided and weak opposition sees the possibility of pushing back against the Brotherhood through the unification and mobilization of a new coalition united mainly by fury over the rule of the Brotherhood (see Hill and Yaqoub). The referendum results, with a strong showing for the opposition in Cairo, low turnout overall, and a failure to reach the symbolic 67 percent threshold, offered some grounds for optimism among the various opposition forces (see Masoud's essay). The renewed political divisions and bickering of the opposition over the last few weeks are not reassuring in this regard. 

Whatever the elections bring, the Brotherhood is now facing more public scrutiny and political pressure than ever before, and seems unable or unwilling to reach out to mend the shattered relationships. It has dealt poorly with this new political arena, struggling to adapt to its new power and responsibilities (see Anani). The crisis has generated a tremendous wave of antagonism toward the Muslim Brotherhood among parts of the Egyptian political class Brotherhood's opponents now warn of the "Brotherhoodization" of all sectors of political and social life. They see Islamists pushing to deepen their control not only over elected bodies such as the Shura Council and the parliament, but over local government, the bureaucracy, labor unions (see Bishara), and the media (Mabrouk). That anti-Brotherhood rhetoric can go to such absurd extremes that it sometimes resembles the silliness of Western anti-Islamist conspiracy theorists (two spheres which are regrettably increasingly feeding upon each other). But broadly speaking, the pushback against the Brotherhood and the challenges it faces in governing and its badly dented reputation speak well for a more balanced Egyptian political arena in the coming years. 

And what of the constitution itself? It isn't the worst constitution in the world, but it's not very good (see Hellyer). It is not the blueprint for theocracy or for renewed dictatorship described by its most extreme critics, but nor does it lay out a clear and forward leaning political architecture. Its treatment of Islam (see Lombardi and Brown) potentially opens the door to significant changes in the relationship between religion and state. More broadly, the ambiguous wording of the constitution and its frequent references to important issues being determined through legislation worry those who fear that such loopholes will be exploited.  

Lurking behind this political drama lies Egypt's accelerating and truly frightening economic collapse. Morsi and the IMF were reportedly close to a deal, but talks broke down in the face of the political instability (see Wills). Attempts to deal with the cost of subsidies were quickly withdrawn in the face of the political turbulence, and won't be easy for the Brotherhood to implement (which should be another source of optimism for the opposition). But this isn't just politics. With the Egyptian pound collapsing, tourism and exports in an abyss, and Qatari loans only a stopgap, the crisis is acute. Last year, Muslim Brotherhood Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater told me that attracting foreign investment and rebalancing the Egyptian economy had to be the country's top priority -- but what rational investor would take a stake in Egypt as it has been for the last two years? Perhaps the political respite will reassure investors and the IMF, but it seems unlikely that this polarized political arena will remain calm for long. 

Analysis of Egyptian politics over the last year, much like Egyptian politics itself, has tended toward hyperbole and polarization. It also tends to be too Egyptian-centric, seeing everything there as unique and neglecting the lessons of other difficult transitions from authoritarian rule. Economic struggles, political polarization, resentment at the opportunism of parties which surge into power, dissatisfaction with the fruits of revolution, disappointing constitutions -- these are not unique to Cairo. Analysts should perhaps spend less time trying to decipher the true Islamic inclinations of the Muslim Brotherhood and responding to the daily Egyptian political churn, and more time with the political science transitions literature. And, of course, with POMEPS Brief #17: The Battle for Egypt's Constitution

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Comments

Load More Comments