How to Save Egypt's Revolution?

Imagine you’re a student living with some colleagues in a furnished apartment. You live together and share the rent but you are different. Each one of you has his own characteristics and his needs. For example, one of you studies all night, while another wakes up early and goes to bed early, and a third studies while listening to loud music. You must also share communal duties: Who cooks and who washes the dishes? How do you divide the electricity bill? You have to arrive at a system that reconciles your rights and your duties so that you all stick to it. Would it make sense for one of you to draw up a roster unilaterally and impose it on the others? Of course not. The only right way to set up the system is for everyone to sit down, agree on a system, and promise to put it into practice. This simple example illustrates the meaning and value of a national constitution. As individual members of society, just like the students renting the apartment, we have to sit down together to write the constitution ourselves. Dustour, the Arabic word for constitution, is a word of Persian origin meaning foundation. It’s a set of legal principles that define the nature of the state and regulate the various estates in terms of their composition, their jurisdiction, and their relationship with the other estates, as well as establishing the rights and duties of individuals.

Throughout the world, when a people want to write a constitution, they do exactly what the students who are living together do. Every sector or group in society elects representatives who form a constituent assembly that proposes articles for the constitution, which are discussed in public and then submitted to the people through a referendum. Egyptian society has many diverse sectors: professionals, workers, and farmers; Upper Egyptians, Nubians, and Copts. A constitution must reflect the interests of all these. If there were four or five Egyptians who were Hindus or Buddhists, the constitution would have to respect their rights and needs. This is the established and conventional concept of a constitution, and after the Egyptian revolution succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak, experts in constitutional law agreed that the old constitution had lapsed with the fall of Mubarak. They advocated electing a constituent assembly, but the military council rejected the will of the revolution and decided to implement constitutional amendments that Mubarak announced in his last moments, even though the revolution had rejected them. The military council formed a committee for constitutional amendments that strangely included only one professor of constitutional law, Dr. Atef el-Banna. With full respect for them, the other members were lawyers who did not have the slightest experience in constitutional law, and the committee members were of only two political persuasions. Half of them were protégés of the Mubarak regime and the other half were members or sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood. The amendments were made, the referendum took place, and it was clear the military council wanted the people to approve them.

The Muslim Brotherhood helped the military council in this: after demanding, like all the revolutionaries, a new constitution, they changed their minds, accepted the amendments, and put all their weight behind carrying out the will of the military council. The Brotherhood resorted to morally prohibited election tactics such as spreading rumours among simple people that rejecting the amendments and demanding a new constitution would eliminate Article 2, which stipulates that Islam is the state religion, even though this article was not part of the amendments in the first place. The result was that the constitution was approved, and—despite the irregularities by the religious forces in the referendum—everyone was under a moral and national obligation to respect the result. The surprise was that it was the military council that did not respect the result, in fact quite the contrary. While the referendum was on only nine specified articles in the 1971 constitution, the military council took everyone by surprise by promulgating an interim constitution of 63 articles, on which Egyptians had not been consulted. Did the military council ask us if he wanted to abolish or preserve the Shura Council, the upper house of Egypt’s Parliament? Did they ask us if we wanted to preserve the requirement that fifty percent of members of Parliament be either workers or peasants? Did they ask us if we wanted a presidential or parliamentary system? By promulgating the interim constitution, the military council practically and legally cancelled the referendum result and imposed a political system on the Egyptian people without referring to the people.

The military council’s coup against the referendum result was obvious to anyone with two eyes, but nonetheless the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists behind them ignored the way the military council had turned against the will of the people and decided to back the military council by any means and at any price in order to reach power. What’s amazing is that the Muslim Brothers are repeating with the military council the same mistakes they have committed with everyone who has ruled Egypt: King Farouk, Ismail Sedki (known as the butcher of the people), Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Anwar Sadat. Every time, the Brotherhood takes part in the national movement and then at a certain moment breaks ranks to make a rapprochement with those in power, who always use them to undermine the national opposition. Then, once they have fulfilled their purpose with the Brotherhood, they throw them aside, or turn against them and crack down on them. So the cart has been put before the horse and all of Egypt has been pushed in the wrong direction. The Brotherhood has become what looks like the political wing of the military council, praising the council day and night and taking a strong stand against anyone who criticizes its decisions.

As extremists have become more prominent, with their repeated attacks on Copts and churches and the tombs of holy men, Egyptians, Muslims, and Copts, have become more worried about the constitutional void into which the military council has thrown us, because the constitution, which is supposed to reflect the views of the people as a whole, will probably be written exclusively by extremists who think that music should be banned and that Egypt’s pharaonic antiquities are idols that should be covered up so that Egyptians do not worship them. The military council has shown some concern for the gravity of the situation, calling for “guiding principles for the constitution” to avoid laws that turn Egypt into another Afghanistan or Somalia. But the Muslim Brothers and the Salafists have rejected the constitutional principles, preferring simply to write the constitution by themselves, based on their own ideas and not according to the interests of society.

The military council’s latest attempt to sort out the constitutional mess they put us in was the document presented by Dr. Ali al-Silmi, the deputy prime minister. This document included guiding principles for a constitution, guaranteeing the civilian nature of the Egyptian state, and specified for the first time the right way to form the committee to draft the constitution, which is by election from the various sectors of society. But the document was nevertheless seriously defective, in that it put the process of forming the constitutional committee wholly at the mercy of the military council, which would have absolute power over the constitution and those who write it. Yet more seriously, the document would turn the armed forces into a state separate from the Egyptian state, leaving the people no legal means to hold them accountable or even find out what they are up to. So, in return for one step forward, Silmi’s document took us ten steps back. The document leaves the Egyptian people with two options, both of them unpleasant: either we retain the civilian state, while in return giving the army a higher status whereby it would be immune from questions about its actions, or we reject the army as guardian of the state, in which case we face the danger of Egypt falling into the grip of extremists. The choice is clear: a civilian state with the army as guardian, or freedom and the danger of extremists—the same logic Mubarak made when he repeatedly proclaimed, “It’s either me or extremism and chaos.”

Silmi’s document is a new blow to the revolution, which is going through a real crisis. The Egyptian people have been so worn down by nine months of deliberate insecurity, chaos, artificial crises, food shortages, and price increases that the spirit of optimism and self-confidence which swept Egyptians after Mubarak stepped down has turned into a saddening state of frustration and anxiety about the future.

So how can we save the revolution? We have to end the conflict between the Islamists and the liberals, and immediately unite the ranks of all the revolutionary forces. We have to choose a body to represent the revolution, covering all of Egypt’s provinces and including all shades of opinion, with the capacity to mobilize millions in the streets so that it can put pressure on the military council to fulfil the objectives of the revolution. The revolutionary forces must submit an alternative to the Silmi document. I hope we can all accept the Azhar document as the basis for a democratic state and at the same time agree on a way to choose the constitutional committee that does not ignore the members of Parliament and also guarantees full representation for all sectors of society. We have to go back to the streets by the millions to prove to the military council that the revolution is still alive in the hearts of the millions of Egyptians who brought it about with their blood and sacrifices and who will never allow it to be aborted. Egypt is now being pulled by two forces: the old regime, which wants to take the country backwards, and the revolution, which wants to take the country into the future. The revolution will definitely triumph, God willing.
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