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Egypt's challenges post-constitution referendum

The Egyptian people have decided on the constitution, stability and giving the elected president the opportunity to establish a democratic system that can fulfil the goals of the revolution. Nevertheless, the outcome of the constitutional referendum must be studied carefully and interpreted correctly for the future. The lessons of the struggle for the constitution are clearly important in terms of understanding the Egyptian scene from the beginning of the revolution until now, and identifying the challenges that face the country in the post-constitution phase.

It can be said that Egyptians agreed on a number of principles but were divided when it came to achieving them. They agreed that social and economic conditions must change, and citizens must enjoy the minimum of healthy food and drink, clean shelter, health care, dignity, education and transportation. They all need knowledge and awareness.

At the start of the process to get the constitution approved a group claimed that the draft was the product of the Islamic movement. They said that it does not represent all Egyptians; that it strengthens the Muslim Brotherhood and not the broad spectrum of Egyptian society; that it wasted the principles of the revolution and its goals; and that it is the basis for a religious dictatorship that uses Shari'ah as a reference point and does not accept criticism.

Supporters of the constitution said that it is the beginning for the end of the transitional stage which put Egypt out of the reach of many difficulties. By approving the draft constitution, they argued, the people would be able to reap the fruits of the revolution; that this step is essential and, indeed, a duty for all; that the constitution is a document prepared by human beings which can always be amended and improved, but it has to start somewhere; and that the opposition parties are only interested in gaining power, money and influence.

Observers noted that the draft constitution was a reasonable start and that the biggest mistake was trying to get the people involved in formulating the constitution put together by experts.

The draft also included three issues which made it inevitable that the opposition would unite in its rejection of the document. One was related to the remnants of the previous regime and transitional provisions for their isolation, something deemed to be unconstitutional by lawyers. The second was the call for reform of the judicial system which pushed some judges to take political stands, something unprecedented across the world. This is an ongoing battle between such judges and the Islamic movement. The third problem was related to the constitution's provisions for nationalisation and confiscation of land and money acquired thanks to a law imposed by what was then a corrupt parliament. Those who benefited from this "unjust enrichment", as it is now called, opposed the new constitution, as did the politicians who put personal interests before those of the nation.

Thus, the opposition, not the regime, is in fact the first challenge facing Egypt. Dialogue is important to break away from the "traditional" ways of protecting tyranny and resisting change. National and religious heritage were used in this respect by some Sufi and Salafi groups.

The second challenge is accepting that the Muslim Brotherhood is the main player in the political arena. Unlike the traditional groups, people were used to seeing the movement only in prisons and detention camps. Thus the other parties have been unable to cope with seeing the Brotherhood expand to fill the political void thanks to its organisational skills and faith base.

Secular and liberal movements abandon their liberalism when dealing with the Islamic movement but it is now time for everyone to accept one another and put their trust in the democratic tools available to them. This has been one of the most difficult battles of the constitution's journey to-date.

The third challenge is for everyone to step back from the barricades, so to speak, into some form of structure which respects the new legitimacy of the ballot box as well as national societal values.

The fourth challenge is the attitude of the opposition, which is split into two groups. One was wounded deeply by the constitution as remnants of the Mubarak regime. The other is the political group which misled the public and recruited thugs, using the corrupt media extensively.

As the opposition turned into resistance to the new regime, the Egyptian people lost the opportunity to find out the truth about the group. Analysing its public positions in the media and on the street revealed the size of this phenomenon and how victims of the Mubarak regime were used as fodder in their battle against the nation in the guise of "the opposition".

The fifth challenge is to have a strong government with clear programmes allowing the people to benefit from the revolution almost immediately, giving them real hope for the future. For this, the president needs to utilise all of the professionals and honest and patriotic people at his disposal.

If this succeeds, it would have done the opposition a favour, as it needs to be serious and aware about its role; to distinguish between opposition and resistance, because a strong opposition is essential in a strong democracy. Hence, while the current opposition's stand against the new constitution could have brought the nation to its knees, building a real opposition and consensus on national priorities has to be at the forefront of the government's agenda.

What remains is to point to the essentials for the government, including translating the constitution into legislation and a legal system. Again, a functioning democracy needs strong government and opposition to turn theory into practice across all state institutions and policies.

The New Year holds a lot of hope for Egypt along with many responsibilities and duties within the political process. I hope that the anniversary of the January 25th revolution will be celebrated collectively in a manner that will end the tension and conflict, bringing instead happiness and hope to the people. We can't afford to be looking for new battlegrounds in order to bring the new government down in a non-democratic fashion.

*The author is a former Egyptian ambassador and a professor of international law at the American University in Cairo.

SOURCE: Al Jazeera

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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