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Egypt's soul on the verge of being shredded

Date

This muddled, partisan constitution risks a new wave of killing.

Protesters in front of the presidential palace during a demonstration in Cairo.

Protesters in front of the presidential palace during a demonstration in Cairo. Photo: AP

AT THE heart of every revolution is a struggle for the nation's soul. And at present, Egypt's soul is on the verge of being torn to shreds. Egyptians are scheduled to go to the polls on Saturday to vote on a new constitution in what should be a historic, seminal day for a new post-revolutionary nation.

Instead, Egypt is looking at a disaster visible to all but the most incurable optimist.

Consider what is likely to happen. A nation of people, a third of whom are illiterate, will be asked to vote on a constitution running to 236 articles they haven't been given the time to read. If last year's referendum on an interim constitution is any guide, the constitution will pass. But voter turnout will be low, particularly if Egyptian liberals and Mubarak loyalists decide to boycott in large numbers. The result, then, is a poorly drafted constitution that vast swaths of Egyptian society will view as illegitimate.

That leaves President Mohammed Mursi's government in something of a crisis. Protests will continue and probably escalate. His capacity to control the country will be no match for this renewed uprising, leaving him with only a range of Mubarak-style options if he wants to cling to power. Mursi will lean on the army. The army will probably protect him as long as he guarantees its autonomy. There goes the dream of an Egyptian government where civilians call the shots over the military. In the meantime, army protection of the regime will likely mean one thing: lots of people will die.

Many things have contributed to this mess. Most recently the focus has been on Mursi's behaviour: his presidential declaration that, until rescinded, effectively placed him above the law; his contemptuous dismissal of opposition as inconsequential; his attempt to ram through a complex, sprawling constitution rather than try to find a compromise. All this is relevant. But it's only part of the story. The real problems start with the revolution itself.

Everything that was so inspiring about it - its spontaneity, its genuinely broad, grass-roots appeal, its lack of leaders, its lack of ideological dogma - is precisely its weakness now. This was a revolution without a vanguard and without a clear purpose beyond claiming Hosni Mubarak's scalp. It wasn't an Islamist revolution but it wasn't a liberal, secular one either. It might be among the most ambiguous revolutions in history. Really, it was a temporary, largely convenient alliance of factions with very little in common. That's why we now see secular liberals and pro-Mubarak loyalists uniting against an Islamist regime. The revolution hasn't really ended. It has just reconfigured.

You can't have an apolitical revolution. Some kind of ideological contest must step in to fill the breech, particularly in a society as divided as Egypt's.

That's fine at the level of ordinary political debate. But when you're trying to draft a constitution it just generates the cycles of protest we're seeing now. The problem is Egypt's path to a new constitution has fallen captive to the partisan bearpit. It begins with the constitutional committee that drafted this document. Here, there are two fatal flaws. First, it reflects the partisan make-up of the Egyptian Parliament. Second, it did its drafting by majority vote. That means a Muslim Brotherhood majority in Parliament suddenly becomes a Brotherhood monopoly over the constitution. It's a Brotherhood document that, in the current context, looks like usurping the revolution.

Then there was the disastrous folly of proceeding with the presidential election in June without a constitution in place. This meant Egyptians were voting for a president when they had no idea what his job would be. It also meant a frightening new creature was born: an Egyptian president who can honestly claim popular support but with no agreed limits on his power.

The problem isn't that Mursi has dictatorial instincts. The problem is he has a democratic argument. It's just too easy for him to claim his opponents are standing in the way of the will of the people. He should never have been in a position to play that card because the constitution should predate his power.

The constitution is a long-term document with long-term consequences. It shouldn't represent a short-term democratic outcome such as the parliament of today. That Mursi thinks it should, neatly captures the partisan quagmire Egyptians face. So, unfortunately, does the draft constitution's text. This is not a legal document; it's a loose, often meandering statement of political aspiration.

It says things such as: "The state is keen to preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family" and "the state supports and encourages technical education and overseas education.'' It guarantees freedom of the press except "in times of war or public mobilisation". Who knows what any of this means? This looseness is exactly what dictators of the past used to place a veneer of constitutionalism on their oppression. Indeed, this constitution borrows heavily from the one that governed the previous regime - which, for a revolutionary document, isn't very revolutionary. What Egypt needs is a minimalist (preferably boring) constitution; one that confines itself as much as possible to matters of consensus.

This one is trying too hard to make a partisan claim on the Egyptian soul.

Waleed Aly is an Age contributor. He hosts Drive on Radio National and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.

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56 comments

  • I think you nailed it with the point that from the beginning as a revolution it had no real idealogical basis (or leaderhip) - and its seems that histoirically all "successful" revoilutions (whether of the right or left) have had such an idealogical basis - be it the American Revolutionary War of Independence of the Russioan Revolution

    Commenter
    mbr
    Date and time
    December 14, 2012, 9:18AM
    • Unfortunately modern history is littered with examples like this one. Not all the same but basically they follow the line of the West encouraging the overthrow of extreme governments and dictators and then no support or help is forthcoming. It would serve the US right if Egypt ended up as a Muslim state. But heaven help the people of Egypt who genuinely hoped for better times ahead.

      Commenter
      Greg100
      Date and time
      December 14, 2012, 9:26AM
      • There is no doubt some truth in that observation, but the recent actions of US/NATO in Libya in apparently supporting the revolution both during and after it seem a different state of affairs. But in some ways the West can't win either way - if it gets involved it is criticised, if it doesn't it is also criticised

        Commenter
        maybe
        Date and time
        December 14, 2012, 10:17AM
      • Greg,
        The Muslim Brotherhood was voted in by the people of Egypt. Egypt gets billions every yerar from the USA and in return got their embassy sacked using the Youtube nonsense as the excuse.
        Its fashionable to blame shift everything away from the perps onto the West but the people in Egypt got exactly what they votede for and will not be freedom and justice.
        As the EU court of human rights ruled Sharia is not compatible with the democracy. The people of Egypt chose Sharia, they wont be moved in a hurry.

        Commenter
        theantijihad
        Location
        Byron Bay
        Date and time
        December 14, 2012, 10:37AM
      • Greg 100#
        How is it in the interests of the US to have Egypt descend into further chaos?, I also remember the US being critized for supporting & not supporting the revolution as well supporting & not supporting Mubarak all at the same time.

        The Egyptians did this to themselves and before they can achieve democratic civilian government they must confront the elephant in the room, Islam.

        The Quran is the word of God, it and the various Hadith decree that Man and all good Muslims must be ruled by Gods Laws for all time. Man must not live by man made laws, it is Haram, forbidden.

        If some "moderate" Muslims want to live live in a democratic state with Laws determined by men for the benefit of all, then those moderate Muslims are not following the example set by "The Man for all time" Mohammad and are therefore no longer real Muslims. They will be labled Heretics and Apostates and vulnerable to the very real possibility of being persecuted because Mohammad said that it is the duty of "Good" Muslims to kill them.

        Muslims are in a real Pickle, how to live in a democratic state and its forbidden man made laws & not disobey the Word of God and his Law for all time.

        Waleed fails to mention that this (Islam) is the real stumbling block to true representative Government in Egypt and probably the entire Muslim World.
        We in the West need to face this truth as well and stop blaming ourselves for Islamic scripture that is not of our making and is beyond our control.

        Commenter
        Kim
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        December 14, 2012, 10:42AM
      • Let them sort it out for themselves.

        Commenter
        Rodrigo
        Date and time
        December 14, 2012, 3:01PM
    • As usual, Waleed Aly is making a lot of sense - the danger of the situation in Egypt is that Mursi can plausibly claim a mandate without limit. He doesn't need to say it's limitless - instead he just needs to deny particular limits that others wish to advance.

      Aly is also correct when he said that the revolution in Egypt was the result of a temporary confluence of opinion amongst forces with highly divergent agendas. Basically, the workers, the peasants and the urban poor made the revolution because they needed fundamental social change - and they still need it. On the other hand, the capitalists, whether in the form of army officers, liberals or the Muslim Brotherhood, supported the revolution precisely in order to prevent the fundamental change to social arrangements that was being threatened but which the masses were, at that point, incapable of articulating coherently.

      Mubarak's regime was based on the army officers, but with support from a loyal opposition in the Muslim Brotherhood. The most likely outcome at this stage is a government based on the Muslim Brotherhood, but with support from the army. The difference will be so small as to be unnoticeable to many.

      What is needed is to develop the class struggle through building independent, democratic trade unions. This is the way to shift politics onto the terrain which most easily exposes the Muslim Brotherhood for what they are and enables workers, peasants and the urban poor to see through religious justifications for injustice.

      Commenter
      Greg Platt
      Location
      Brunswick
      Date and time
      December 14, 2012, 9:37AM
      • I definitely think you should get over there as soon as possible and convince the Egyptian on the street to trade their Koran for a bit of Karl Marx.

        Commenter
        trainspotter
        Date and time
        December 14, 2012, 10:41AM
      • Trainspotter wants me to go off to Egypt for some propaganda and agitational work. There are a number of reasons why I won't, the most relevant of which is that I wouldn't be very effective because I don't speak Arabic.

        What I can say, however, is that:

        (a) The organisations of which I am a member are supporting the building of just such an independent and democratic trade union movement in Egypt. For instance, the International Trade Union Confederation, to which the ACTU is affiliated, is assisting in the emergence of independent democratic trade unions there, as workers challenge the old State-controlled organisations from the Mubarak era.

        (b) There are Left organisations in Egypt fighting to turn the political struggle into one of class against class. In fact, just a few minutes ago, I read an E-Mail containing a statement from possibly the largest Left organisation there, sharply criticising Mursi and his constitution and threatening to bring them down. This is a decided improvement in their line, since until recently they were buried as faction inside the Muslim Brotherhood and were working for the Brotherhood to come to power.

        Commenter
        Greg Platt
        Location
        Brunswick
        Date and time
        December 14, 2012, 11:37AM
      • Very well said Greg. I think Slavoj Zizek once articulated that much of the chaos and the lack of any traction towards any real change in the middle-east is for the most part attributable to the absence of a meaningful left. Let's face it, the priestly-class, the capitalists and the elites have always been a formidable trio throughout history that worked together to subjugate nations.

        Commenter
        semper_fi
        Location
        Perth
        Date and time
        December 14, 2012, 2:55PM

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