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Constitutional Confusion and Contusions in Egypt

The constitution, as important as it may be, is not a cure for the genetic illnesses of the states of the Middle East.
Egypt’s constitution committee meeting back in November.

Egypt’s constitution committee meeting back in November.

In a democratic state, a constitution is supposed to express in words the basic values of its citizens and state the foundational principles that will guide the conduct of the government in a way that reflects the values that most of the citizens believe in, led by the value of freedom. The constitution is intended to limit the powers of government and to defend the citizen from the whims of those in positions of power.

Even in dictatorial states there are laws, however they are mostly not effective; they do not defend the citizen from the power of the government, and the recent situation in Syria is a convincing proof of this fact. In dictatorial states the constitution is the tool that is used to carry out the will of the dictator, as well as his intentions and sometimes even his excesses, while he shuts the mouths of his opposition with the usual claim that everything he’s doing is in accordance with the constitution and the laws that are based on it.

Egypt, after the revolution of January 25th 2011, is a state that has freed itself from the burden of a dictator, Husni Mubarak, who, together with his cronies and predecessors, the officers, ruled Egypt since July 1952 in accordance with a constitution that served as a fig leaf to cover up the fact that the government was entirely in his hands, and the whole country revolved around him as if he were a god.

Now the Egyptians want a different constitution, a “democratic” one, which on one hand will promise that the government will not become a dictatorship again, and on the other hand will express the basic values of the society and defend them. This is the reason that Egypt needs a new constitution, because the previous one was nothing more than a tool to serve Mubarak.

The reality of recent days is that certain groups are not pleased by the way that President Muhammad Morsi is trying to secure the constitution by referendum, so they go out into the streets to express their opinion with demonstrations that sometimes deteriorate into acts of mass violence, injuries and deaths. In order to simplify the discussion for the purpose of this article, we will say that the population in Egypt is divided into three main groups: the Secular, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.

The secular group wants to turn Egypt into a modern, liberal, open, Western style state, that is neither religious nor traditional in character, where the status of citizenship is equal for everyone, and takes the place of all of the other ethnic, tribal, religious, and sectarian affiliations.

The Muslim Brotherhood wants a religious state, in which Shari’a rules but does not prevent the state from adopting modern tools that exist in the world. They are in favor of women’s participation in public activities, with limitations for modesty, and believe that it is important to integrate the Coptic citizens – who are Christians – into the society, economy and the various governmental systems. But equality among citizens is seen as problematic, because according to Islam a Muslim and a Christian can never be equal, since the Christian is a “ward of the state” (dhimmi) who, according to the Qur’an (Sura 9, Verse 29) must exist in the shadow of Islam and under humiliating conditions. The statement that women are equal to men is problematic for them too, because of traditional concepts that say that “the men are responsible for the women” (Sura 4, Verse 34).

The Salafis want to see the implementation of Islamic Shari’a in all areas of life, and do not accept the adoption of any Western, modern characteristic. They insist on regarding Copts as class B citizens, and do not accept the idea that women should have public positions. They take literally the saying attributed to Muhammad, the prophet of Islam: “The best hijab for a woman is her home.”

The main problem with the constitution in Egypt today is that every one of these three sectors sees the revolution as his own revolution, defines “democracy” according to his own concepts and values, and if the new constitution goes in a different direction then he will claim that “they stole the revolution,” he will go out to the streets and will raise hell. The only common factor to all of the sectors is their avowed refusal to allow a dictator to take control of the state, even though each one of them would agree that whoever represents their world view should rule with broad powers. In other words: each sector would agree to a “soft dictator” if he would represent that particular sector’s world view.

About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.


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