Egypt’s New Constitution: Vote “No” (If you really want to)

In case you’re wondering what’s what and who to believe in all the jumbled bickering on the draft constitution of Egypt, I suggest you start here. Nathan Brown and (recently returned to Carnegie Endowment) Michele Dunne give an overview on the main features of the draft before hand, however they do so in absolute terms without reference to the differences between this draft and the annulled 2012 version, or that of 1971.

The piece shows how the land lies in terms of “winners” and “losers” among the country’s different political powers. And unfortunately that’s what happens when you have a drafting committee composed of fifty people who “represent” conflicting groups; every individual will seek not what is best for the long term stability of the country and welfare of the people, but will rather quibble on what’s best for their particular group on the short run and in the run up to the parliamentary and presidential elections. The drafting process is thus intrinsically flawed, and the current draft — which falls short of many of the revolution’s ambitions– is merely a reflection of the “transition to transition” in which the country remains mired.

Having said that, I believe this draft is a positive step forward on a number of accounts. All the major political powers within the country have sacrificed one thing or the other in order to achieve a general consensus on the draft before submitting it to a referendum. The Army, though the surreptitious status of their budget remains sanctified, gave up a little on the issue Military Courts by willing to delineate the crimes that would fall under its judicial jurisdiction. This limitation was not present in the 2012 version which gave military judiciary a much wider room to execute its authority on civilians. The military also agreed that the appointment of the Minister of Defense would require the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for only the first two presidential terms following the constitution’s promulgation. The power of the SCAF to choose and appoint the Minister was not limited in the previous constitution of President Morsi.

Granted, these “concessions” are not too much to cheer for, and as Brown and Dunne mention, the military “is no longer treated as part of the executive branch of government but rather a branch unto itself”. Likewise, the judiciary is slowly evolving into a branch in and of itself, as the draft constitution cloaks their budget in the same sanctified secrecy as that of the military, and moreover expects judges themselves to choose appointees to the positions of General Public Prosecutor and Chief of the Supreme Court.

"Do you think I over did it?"

“Do you think I over did it?”

But was it honestly realistic to think that this draft, which came at the heel of a systematic attempt by the previous president to undermine the judicial branch of government, and which was the direct result of the popularly supported coup delivered by the “blessed hands” of the Army, was it honestly realistic to think that it would not ultimately reward these two institutions in one way or another? At the end of the day, is it so unnatural that the constitution would general public moods and sentiments within Egypt, especially towards the Army?

The chapter on rights and privileges is also a step forward from 2012 (find out some more here), and the reason why this contrast between the current and older versions is always so important is that one cannot view the current draft constitution stripped from its historical, political and meta contexts. Only by understanding these contexts can one come to a conclusion on the merits, or demerits, of the draft.

And it is this context, not the actual draft, that worries me most.

There is a vicious campaign to rally the yes vote for the constitution, and what amounts to a political pogrom by the media against those who think they should vote against it. There are quite a few reasons, some worthy, some opportunistic, and some banal, why people might choose to refuse this draft. They might disagree with the whole political process because it is an aftereffect of an illegitimate coup. They might believe that the Army should not be hallowed as much. They might think that their revolutionary ambitions remain unfulfilled, or they might simply think that the preamble is just too cheesy (it really is). Piling all these groups into one vilified monolith and branding them all as unpatriotic terrorist-huggers is something that scares me. It is not a healthy environment conducive to democracy when the simplest opposition is overblown, indicted, sentenced, and virtually chastised in every column, and on every podium and news-channel within the country. It is all a nasty prelude to what might happen to voices of opposition after the next president comes to power. What spooks me even more is that this castigation of dissent is popularly welcomed by a wide majority of the population, including self-professed “liberals”. In an atmosphere like that it won’t matter if you have the purest and most immaculate constitution in the world. If the mobs still want your head, your head will be handed to them, rights or no rights.

That’s why it is of utmost importance for anyone who wants to say “No” to do so. Dissent should be allowed, tolerated, expected and embraced. It is the only way forward for Egyptians if it wants to take the stride among free nations of the world.

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