On top of everything else, Egypt now risking constitutional crisis

November 28, 2012

The deputy head of Egypt's Supreme Consitutional Court, Maher Samy, speaks during a press conference in Cairo. (AFP/Getty Images)

Eight months after Egypt's Constitutional Assembly first convened to begin the difficult and complex task of drafting the country's post-revolution constitution, a document meant to guide and define the newly democratic nation, the assembly announced this morning that it will finish the "final draft" today and vote on it tomorrow.

The constitution still has to be approved by a national referendum, so it's not necessarily final, but the proposed timing is jarring. Two veteran Egypt analysts, Elijah Zarwan and Marc Lynch, called it "madness" and "terrible," respectively. Here are three reasons why:

1. Egypt's political system is in the middle of a major crisis.

President Mohammed Morsi unilaterally granted himself sweeping new powers last week, a decree that has set off enormous protests, outrage within Egypt and beyond, and led many of the country's judges to go on strike. It's a big mess that has the potential to get bigger, a crisis that could test not just Morsi but the entire post-revolutionary democratic experiment in Egypt. Not an ideal time, in other words, for the country to weigh and consider a new constitution.

2. Did I mention that judges are on strike right now?

Under normal circumstances, the judiciary would play a crucial role in overseeing the constitutional process, and maybe in challenging the new constitution itself. Always-smart Middle East-watcher Issandr El Amrani elaborates: "The supervisory commission to run it would be difficult to form, because it has to include senior judges who would likely boycott it, and judges are supposed to also be present at polling stations."

3. The constitutional assembly is a mess.

From its beginning, the assembly has had major problems: a possibly disproportionate majority of Muslim Brotherhood allies and even-more-conservative Salafists has led many Egyptians to see it as non-representative of Egypt's diversity, and many leftist delegates boycotted. Reuters' report on today's constitutional news  quotes "one of the few remaining liberal members." Many Egyptians have been calling for reform of the assembly, which they are apparently not getting.

Also, major Egyptian political institutions have played an outsized role in the assembly, possibly tainting its mission to challenge the old status quo and create a new democratic Egypt. As scholar Nathan J. Brown wrote in Foreign Policy, "It is as if the United States decided to write a new constitution and allowed the Federal Reserve Board, the FBI, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Government Printing Office, and the Federal Judicial Center all to draft provisions affecting their work." Brown worried that the constitution-drafting process would be, in many ways, a process of Islamists negotiating behind-the-scenes with powerbrokers such as the military.

As if that weren't enough, the Salafists, which represent but one minority of Egyptians but have maintained a presence in the assembly, could exert their own influence. Here's El Amrani again: "All this points to a royal mess, a constitution that has no legitimacy among a big part of the public, and gives the opportunity to the Salafis — whose votes the Brothers now need to approve the latest draft — to introduce modifications to the text."

Bottom line: 

The plan to reveal and rapidly approve the constitution in the middle of this crisis risks exacerbating concerns, maybe not groundless, that Islamist groups are seizing wider power in the new Egypt.

Even if the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies on the Constitutional Assembly are not deliberately taking advantage of this moment of political chaos to push through a new constitution while they hold many of its seats and more secular judges are on strike, they're not exactly going out of their way to include non-Islamist voices. That's been a major complaint of liberal, nationalist and Coptic groups from the start, and it's unsettling many Egyptians to see Morsi and Islamist officials acting with such disregard for those concerns.

Given the  deep anger at Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the  worrisome skepticism at his government's legitimacy, it's difficult to see either of those negative trends improving if the assembly succeeds in pushing through this new constitution, whatever it says.

Maybe this is just clumsy politics, maybe it's a more sinister attempt by Muslim Brotherhood officials to grow their own power at the expense of other groups, or maybe it's something else. But it's hard to see how it could be a good thing for Egypt's nascent democracy.

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Max Fisher · November 28, 2012