Egyptians are in the process of voting on their proposed constitution. What kind of government would the draft constitution put into place? Would it be more a Western-style democracy or an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy?
Egypt is divided over the draft constitution in part by President Mohammed Morsi’s assumption of dictatorial powers and the manner in which the draft constitution passed the Constitutional Assembly, which is dominated by Islamists of the Moslem Brotherhood and Salafist parties.
This has caused liberal Egyptian groups, which spearheaded the demonstrations against former president Hosni Mubarak, to go back to demonstrating in Tahrir Square, while supporters of the Brotherhood and the draft constitution counterdemonstrated, sometimes violently.
Morsi, a leader of the Brotherhood, issued a constitutional declaration that limited judicial review of his decisions, giving him virtual dictatorial powers and leaving liberal groups wondering why they ousted the secular Mubarak for the Islamist Morsi. Morsi said he did this to speed adoption of the new constitution.
Representatives of non-Islamist parties and the Christian minority withdrew from the Constitutional Assembly, citing the marginalization of non-Islamists, the absolute dominance of Islamists, and the Islamists’ unwillingness to negotiate. In less than two days, the Islamists completed the draft and sent it to Morsi, who called for a referendum on two weeks’ notice.
Compare this process with that used to adopt the United States Constitution. Egyptians had no time for serious debate, nor the equivalent of the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers.
The first round of voting on adoption of the constitution ended Dec. 15, with the second round scheduled for Dec. 22. Violence accompanied first round voting, including an attack with Molotov cocktails and birdshot by Islamists on the offices of the newspaper of the liberal Wafd Party.
There are conflicting claims about the result of first round voting. The National Salvation Front said it had indications that 60-65 percent of voters in Cairo and other cities had rejected the new constitution, while Muslim Brotherhood allies said that 72.5 percent were in favor. This led the Front to accuse the Brotherhood of vote rigging.
Rights organizations criticized the lack of real monitoring. Well-known international observers did not participate. Where were the UN monitors that monitored the recent U.S. presidential election? The Carter Center specifically refused to send a delegation.
The situation in Egypt caused New York Times pundit Tom Friedman to despair about “a dangerous descent toward prolonged civil strife, unless a modus vivendi can be found” between Morsi and his growing opposition. If the constitution “is just jammed through by Morsi,” Friedman opined, “Egypt will be building its new democracy on a deep fault line. It will never be stable.”
Friedman cites Mona Zulficar, a lawyer and an expert on the constitution, who says the main problem is the draft’s treatment of basic rights, which “must be balanced by vague religious, social and moral values, some of which will be defined by clerical authorities. This language opens loopholes.”
Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, is more specific. Tadros raises the following issues:
Article 1 drops reference to citizenship as the basis of Egypt’s political order. The word “citizenship” in the Egyptian context has been understood to mean equal rights for both Muslims and non-Muslims. It also adds a further allegiance to which Egypt identifies: that of the “Islamic nation.”
A new Article 4 provides for an official role for al Azhar, the Sunni university allowing al Azhar is to give its opinion on all matters pertaining to Sharia. Since the unchanged language of Article 2 makes “the principles of Sharia” the main source of legislation, this new article places a non-elected, sectarian religious body above the Egyptian parliament as arbitrator and explainer of state laws.
Article 6 adds the word “shura” to the language about the basis of the political system; a shura is a traditionally unelected, Islamist consultative process that Islamists claim is equivalent to democracy.
A new Article 219 purports to define “the principles of Sharia,” which, according to Article 2, are the main source of legislation. It states that “the principles of Sharia” include: “its total evidence, its fundamental and jurisprudence basis, its accepted sources in the doctrines of Sunnis.”
The Obama administration declined to criticize Egypt’s draft constitution despite spirited internal debate over whether the document adequately protects women, religious minorities, and dissenting voices. (Weren’t women’s rights one of the main themes of the Obama campaign?)
The United States gives Egypt about $2 billion annually in financial aid, and last year, also agreed to $1 billion in debt relief, in the hope of advancing a democratic transition. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is calling for “a healthy discussion” of whether aid to Egypt should be reassessed. Nevertheless, the turmoil in Egypt has not stopped the administration from sending more than 20 F-16 fighter jets to Egypt as part of Egypt’s aid package.
It is unlikely that the new Egyptian constitution and the administration’s tacit support for the course it sets for Egypt will enhance Middle East stability.