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Egypt's revolutionary constitution

May 5, 2014 at 12:56 am

On Saturday, Egyptians will go the polls for the fifth time since the overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship. The constitutional referendum marks another step in advancing the gains of their 25 January revolution. From the very first day after the former dictator’s departure a fierce political debate erupted about which should come first – an elected parliament or a new constitution. If adopted, this new constitution will clear the way for parliamentary elections. Either way, however, yes or no, the result may not deliver the elusive stability that is so badly needed.

For a start, the self-styled Salvation Front headed by the failed presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi, Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei has already announced that it would not accept defeat. Victory for this group, it appears, can only be the overthrow of the elected president, Mohamed Morsi. For them, his Islamist background disqualifies him for the post and poses a threat to Egypt’s secular identity.


After failing to block the referendum, the Salvation Front has half-heartedly agreed to participate, calling for a “no” vote. It’s leaders claim that the proposed constitution is flawed and does not guarantee universal “rights and freedoms”. More specifically, they argue that it endangers the rights of minorities and women. Though dubbed the “Muslim Brotherhood constitution”, the same opposition figures, including representatives from the Coptic Church, accepted the composition of the drafting committee from the beginning and participated in its work until the very end. For six months they discussed every article, a process which was broadcast on various television stations.


Judging from recent trends, Egyptians tend to participate more keenly in parliamentary and presidential elections than referenda. Yet 51,330,024 Egyptians are entitled to cast their vote on Saturday. About 25 million people are actually expected to go to the polling stations.

Of course, the new constitution is not a sacred text in the sense that it can be amended at any time. That could be expedited by the popular will embodied in the elected parliament. Therefore, if the opposition views are really a reflection of national sentiments they should have no fear of a parliamentary review.  If, on the other hand, they don’t command the majority in parliament, the imposition of their vision, by hook or by crook, could be interpreted as an attempt by the minority to dominate the majority.

Ordinary Egyptians should not be blamed if they are turned off by the opposition’s rhetoric. Take the case of Dr Ala al-Aswani, for example, who wrote on his Twitter account on 8 December that it is possible for the political forces to come to an agreement on the referendum after two conditions are met: debar the illiterate from voting and prosecute those who buy votes with oil and sugar, the latter being an under-the-belt reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. As for Amr Hamzawi, the former Carnegie Peace Institute researcher and member of the Salvation Front, he told “On TV live” that even if the people vote “yes” the opposition will continue with their efforts to annul the constitution.

On their part, supporters of the revolutionary constitution insist that it will put into effect all the necessary instruments to combat corruption and preserve the dignity of every individual, male and female. Each article, they further point out, refers to citizens, “male and female”, as equal citizens in rights and duties.

Perhaps most crucially, the yes campaign says that the constitution will regulate the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed. Accordingly, they argue that if President Morsi was really intent on becoming a dictator as the opposition alleges, the last thing he would want is a parliament able to check and balance his decisions.

Writing a constitution in normal circumstances is not the easiest of tasks. It seldom ever concludes with 100% consensus. Writing it in the throes of revolutionary upheaval is even more daunting. After the overthrow of their absolute monarchy in 1789, the French revolutionaries had written and re-written four constitutions before 1799.  The proposed constitution of revolutionary Egypt is certainly not perfect; but it is nonetheless the result of a collective effort over several months.

A new constitution by itself, however, will not take Egypt out of the dark tunnel of political instability and underdevelopment. By their free will and determination, though, the Egyptian people can forge a better future. Their constitution will ensure the rule of law when it is enacted by an elected parliament and allows the peaceful rotation of power through elections. Any further delay in adopting a national constitution will perpetuate uncertainty and more damage for the country’s ravaged economy. It may even cost more loss of life and property, as the recent events forewarn. Egypt deserves a new birth that will end its dreadful cycle of instability. That is why the people have no other option but to vote “yes” on Saturday.