Egyptian Court throws out Fundamentalist Constitution-writing assembly, Insists on a Representative Body

Egypt’s administrative court invalidated the current constituent assembly charged with drafting the new constitution, on the grounds that it is overly stacked with Muslim fundamentalists and is unrepresentative of Egyptian society.

The court relied on a 1994 law stipulating that sitting judges and parliamentarians may not be involved in constitutional revisions, lest they misuse their position to give themselves more power.

The ruling is open to being overturned, but Ahmad Baha’ al-Din Shaaban, founder of the Egyptian Socialist Party, said that the country’s leftists and secularists would continue to agitate for a fair constitution whether the ruling was upheld or not.

Leftists have been mounting street protests against the constituent assembly, and gradually everyone from the Coptic Christians to the traditional clergy of al-Azhar seminary to labor unions and secularists have dissociated themselves from it. The court’s decision is the right one, and most Egyptians are breathing a sigh of relief.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi fundamentalists won the parliamentary elections of last fall, but some of them have confused winning one election one time with earning the right to forever shape the constitutional framework of Egyptian politics.

Polling does not find that most Egyptians are fundamentalists, and, indeed, there is evidence that they have become more secular in the past year. Mansour Moaddel’s polls find half of Egyptians now say they are Egyptians first and Muslims second, up from 8% only a few years ago.

The electorate may well have put the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in for reasons unrelated to a desire for a theocracy. They may just have been looking for representatives who are not corrupt, won’t steal from them, and are not connected to former president Hosni Mubarak and his cronies. To misunderstand such a quest for uprightness with a desire to ban beer would be a mistake.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that the Brotherhood or Salafis will will the next parliamentary election. In January of 2005, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a hard line Shiite religious party, more or less won the first real Iraqi parliamentary elections since the 1950s. But in March, 2010, the Supreme Council took a bath, and has only a handful of representatives in parliament. Yet it played an outsized role in shaping the Iraqi constitution, which is unfair to the next generation of Iraqis.

Bush viceroy Paul Bremer and later US ambassador in Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad had their fingers on the scale of Iraqi politics and constitution-writing, but they also acquiesced to some demands of the elected majority. It was the worst of all possible worlds, and having a constitution rejected by most Sunni Arabs contributed to the country’s ongoing instability.

Egyptians are independent and are not being forced into these unfair and dangerous ways of proceeding by an outside imperial power. The parliament can select a constituent assembly that represents the full range of Egyptian opinion, and it has a chance of coming up with a constitution that makes for social peace rather than creating widespread discontents.

Christians are 10 percent of the Egyptian population. Secular-minded Muslims are a significant proportion of the whole. The Egyptian New Left spearheaded the revolution and is vital. Winning one election one time does not give the Muslim Brotherhood the right to monopolize the drafting of the constitution. It should learn from what happened in Iraq, when the fundamentalist Shiites (allied with the Kurds) created a constitution that at least a third of the population absolutely rejected, pushing the society toward civil war.

4 Responses

  1. I have to disagree with the conclusions stated here.
    Firstly, the fact that there is an increase in 8% in the number of Egyptians who say they are “Egyptians first” over those who say that they are “Muslims first” does NOT necessarily mean they are becoming increasingly secular. In two world wars, pious Catholics in Britain fought against pious Catholics in Germany. Both put their country first, both had pious people of a particular religious fighting side-by-side with agnostics, atheists and people of other religion, but this does not mean they felt their religion was not so important, or that it shouldn’t have more of a public role. Similarly, pious Shi’ite Muslims in Iraq fought in the years-long war between Iraq and Iran against equally pious Shi’ite Iranians. Identity is a complex thing in the Middle East and may not be related the one’s views of public role of religion.
    Secondly, I maintain that it is a mistake to view the very strong Islamist vote in Egypt as merely a call by the public for more honest politicians, or a view that pious individuals can manage the secular state more efficiently and honestly than the current relatively secular leadership, or that they are rewarding the two parties (MB and Mour-Salafists) for conducting extensive social welfare and charity work. Religious belief is a VERY strong element in the human make-up of the Middle East. Even formerly militantly secularist states such as Turkey and non-Muslim Israel are feeling the repercussions of a large-scale return to religion in their countries. Large parts of the population of this region were voting (as I see it) no-confidence in the dominant secularist, materialist, consumerist ideology and value system of the West. There is an increasing belief that a socially just society can only exist in a religiously RIGHTEOUS society…that is, a society that publicly lives according to Divine Law. It is not enough to tinker with the current system in order to deliver a better life to the public, but rather, this better life comes as a consequence of living up to the Divine mandate they were commmanded to live by, as they see it.
    Over and over I see in comments and essay by Progressive thinkers a tendency to view all political and social tendencies as being a direct consequence of only economic and political forces. As the Bible says “man does not live by bread alone”. Not only do masses of people in the Middle East (and other parts of the world) want better living standards, more prosperity and more accountability from their rules, but they also want to see their children grow up in a responsible way, to see them respect their parents and elders, to repsect and live by their ancient traditions, to stay away from what most people in the region see as negative, anti-familiy Western cultural influences (e.g. music, films, literature) that promote pornography, disrepect for elders, sexual promiscuity and homosexuality. There is no doubt in my mind that a large majority of those in Egypt who voted for the MB and Nour-Salafists share these values and want to see them promoted in PUBLIC life, even while possibly still respecting the rights of the secular public, the Christians and others.
    Dismissing these views as being “primitive” and being out of step with current Liberal-Left-Progressive is quite dangerous and will lead to a massive misunderstanding of the current political and cultural upheaval that is occurring in the Middle East. Even if in the future, Islamist parties decline in strength, and even if in Turkey, the ruling Islamist party is voted out of power, there is no turning the clock back and the secularist political forces will have to realize that the return to religion is real and will not be rolled back merely because of the vagaries of the vote for various Islamist parties that may come and go.

    • You got the statistic wrong. They went from 8% saying that they are Muslims first and Egyptians second to 50% saying they are Egyptians first and Muslims second. There is no way to read that but as a rise of secular nationalism.

  2. Here is an obit for Ahmed Ben Bella, the first Prime Minister of Algeria and one of the leaders of the FLN which led the Algerian revolt against French rule.

    link to nytimes.com

    Note how he says at the end he is “Muslim first, Arab second, Algerian third”. Does that mean he is anti-nationalist? No. Does he mean he is not an Algerian nationalist? No. One can be a pious Muslim, want a stronger public role for Islam yet still define himself as a Nationalist-i.e. an Egyptian first and a Muslim second.

  3. It is strange and convoluted logic. On one side is an assembly elected by votes of whole country. On the other side is a sampling of a few thousand (if not a few hundred) opinions (of city dwellers) by some unknown entity. How can these two be equal? Isn’t it intellectually dishonest to rubbish the opinion of millions because it does not pass the liberal opinion test. For the sake of argument, even if we agree that MB & the Salfist’s do not represent the plurality, what other fair method could pass the democracy test? You reject the first choice of people and ask them to make a choice again. Are you thinking that they will lose and secularists will become a balancing force. What would you do if the assembly elected through first general elections also throws up the same people. The fact is that Military, whose officer class is overwhelmingly secular, has struck. And wait till they will strike again.
    Secondly, Egyptian nationalism is an old phenomenon, which has its roots in Arab nationalism espoused by Nasir. Nasir tried to replace Islam with nationalism but failed. And what do you expect from a society which has been under tyranny for so long. Nationalism will stay as a dominant voice but by calling oneself Egyptian first does not imply that Islam is rejected.
    Thirdly, Iraqi analogy does not fit the Egyptian society. Egypt, barring the 10% Copts, is a Sunni society. MB has its roots in the society and barring the opinion making cities, they enjoy grass roots support. The Egyptians are not under American rule and there is no Paul Bremer or Zalmay Khalilzad sent out to destroy what Tommy Franks soldiers could not do.

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