Egypt’s constitutional showdown

Ala al-Din Abd al-Monem, head of the Parliamentary Front to Resist the Constitutional Changes (in Egypt), is on al-Jazeera right now saying that the opposition has decided to boycott the Parliamentary session on changes to the Constitution being rammed through by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.  The opposition has already announced plans to boycott the Constitutional referendum planned for April 3 (which, oddly, appears to fall right in the middle of the Coptic holidays).  Now, according to Abd al-Monem, the Parliamentary opposition (including the Muslim Brotherhood MPs) is discussing the possibility of a collective resignation from Parliament in protest, which would be an extraordinary escalation and would push Egypt into unknown territory.

Resignation Ishaqaljazeera
Al-Jazeera ignoring political reformists, as usual (a joke of course)

Tempers are hot and the debate fierce about these Constitutional changes. Al-Jazeera covered the protests, along with a press conference with Kefaya’s George Ishaq, talking about the security forces’ rude disruption of opposition protests against the Constitutional changes.   A number of activists were arrested, including some bloggers (if that’s what it takes to get people to care).    Alarmingly, Hossam el-Homalawy writes that he heard at least some protestors chanting “He, who bans demos, will join Sadat soon!” 


The harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood (which did not appear to be represented at the demos in question) meanwhile proceeds apace – and cannot, as I’ve said again and again, be somehow cordoned off from the question of “good” political reform.

I haven’t seen a good summary of the proposed Constitutional revisions yet.   I’ve been following the debate on the Egyptian op-ed pages closely, and have been able to scrutinize the official proposals (thanks, Issandr).  From this, the most important provisions are overwhelmingly aimed at consolidating NDP single-party rule and combatting the Muslim Brotherhood.  Legal parties would be able to compete, but not independents – with the NDP maintaining a stranglehold on the licensing of other political parties (which it has used most recently to prevent the legalization of such parties as the moderate Islamist al-Wasat party and the Karama Party).  Only licensed parties more than five years old with at least 5% of Majles al-Shaab and the Shura Council would be allowed to nominate a candidate for President.   Counter-terrorism legislation would be extended and protected, preserving key privileges of the state security forces, while “any threat to national unity or national security or to the ability of the institutions of the State to fulfill their constitutional roles, should constitute a clear and present danger” (in the words of Fathi Sarour).  Judicial supervision over elections will be drastically reduced – something which was a major point of contention in the last round of elections, as some may recall.   An article would be added forbidding the establishment of a political party based on religion – aimed directly at the MB, of course.  A provision would be added allowing the electoral system to be changed, perhaps opening the door to a PR (party-based) system which would rule independents out completely.  All of this is perhaps overshadowed by the loud public arguments over Article 2, which defines the role of the sharia and whether or not Egypt will be described as a Muslim state. 

The thrust of these proposed Constitutional changes is clear: they reflect the interests of the NDP and the Mubarak family, go against the aspirations of virtually all advocates of political reform, and are being forced through the Parliament over strong opposition objections.  The unanimity of opposition to these proposals across Egyptian political society  – outside the ranks of the NDP – is striking.   Between this crude Constitutional gambit and the ever more overt repression of all political opposition, the Egyptian regime could not be making its anti-democratic ambitions more clear.   So often we hear about the danger that Islamist parties might believe in “one man, one vote, one time”, and abolish democracy if they managed to win power.   Maybe, maybe not – it’s speculative, and we don’t know.  But perhaps this moment in Egypt will clarify things:  we don’t know what the Muslim Brotherhood would do, but we do know about Mubarak.

I’ve been writing often about the costs of America’s abandonment of even the pretence of caring about Arab democracy.  These are summed up very well by Amr Hamzawy and Dina Bishara (of Carnegie) today

The Mubarak regime is taking advantage of an opportune international moment. With Washington’s attention diverted from the democracy agenda, the regime can resort to outright repression of the opposition without risking its close ties with the West…. By resorting to outright repression of the Brotherhood, Mubarak is making a mockery of the American push for democracy in the Middle East. Turning a blind eye toward the ongoing crackdown undermines the credibility of an already shaky American commitment to democratization in the Middle East. It also cements the perception among Egyptians that Washington blesses autocratic regimes.

Domestically the crackdown carries great risks too. Abd al-Monim Abou el-Fatouh, one of the more liberal of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, issued a stark warning at the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

Stability cannot be achieved by depriving social and political leaders of civil justice. Nor can it be achieved by resisting democracy and excluding the largest political force in the country from political life. By closing the doors to dialogue, the state is opening a door to chaos and extremism. The consequences will be severe, not only for Egypt but for the entire Middle East.

Is all this worth it just to get Jimmy Mubarak into the Egyptian President’s office?  So that he can spend the next thirty years promising to build a liberal civil society which can compete with the Muslim Brotherhood (but not actually doing it) and scaring easily spooked Americans with dire warnings of an Islamist takeover, just like his dad?  Brilliant.  The United States needs to think very carefully about how it is going to approach the upcoming Constitutional showdown – a lot of people in the Arab world are watching.