Egyptians to Decide on Fundamentalist-influenced Constitution via Referendum

The draft constitution was handed over in a ceremony on Saturday to President Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he in turn immediately scheduled it for a national referendum on December 15. These high-handed moves provoked outrage among liberals, leftists and many centrists , while hundreds of thousands of rural fundamentalists were bused in to the old Islamic quarter of Cairo to support the president. Some Muslim Brothers on Sunday morning demonstrated in front of the high court, afraid that it would strike down the Constituent Assembly as illegitimate. Sunday morning twitter feed is saying they actually blocked the judges from entering.

Amr Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League and a rival to Morsi in last May’s presidential race, wanted to know how it was that the Constituent Assembly was suddenly able to wrap up its work with such rapidity. And, he wondered why Morsi was not giving the public time to properly study and discuss the text, rushing the nation into a yes or no vote on a potentially fateful document.

Euronews reports:

By law, the referendum is supposed to be overseen by the judiciary, but many judges’ associations are saying that they will refuse to supervise the vote and that they are on strike from hearing court cases, in protest against Morsi’s arrogance and his disregard for the judiciary. (Morsi for his part feared that the Mubarak appointees among the judges might dissolve the Constituent Assembly and attempt to put the president back under the thumb of the officer corps).

Many among the New Left youth are calling for a boycott of the referendum. As usual, they just don’t understand how you shape politics in an environment where people can vote and their vote counts. Their organizations began with Kefaya! (Enough!) in 2005, when the Mubarak regime engaged in electoral fraud, and so they don’t invest in elections.

But if any of them is reading me, please, please don’t deal with this problem with a boycott. Referendums are beloved of dictators precisely because they are difficult to lose. What if only 30% of Egyptians voted in the referendum, but the majority of them voted ‘yes’ on the constitution? It would win! Then it will be the Constitution, and it isn’t necessarily easy to get rid of or change a constitution once it has been adopted. The US military did up a hasty, temporary constitution for Germany after World War II, which is in place to this day (changing it would open a lot of cans of worms, and it works all right, so why bother?)

If you really don’t like this constitution, one effective way of dealing with it is to organize to ensure that more people vote against it than for it, and make it fail, forcing Morsi back to the bargaining table. Staying home and playing your guitar is not going to derail the Brotherhood march to power.

On the other hand, Egyptians are not necessarily stuck with Morsi’s constitution forever, even if it does pass on December 15. Future parliaments will be able to amend it. And, after all, other democratic countries have abolished unworkable constitutions after trying them out (the US originally had the Articles of Confederation, widely viewed as a failure, which was superseded by the 1789 constitution). But unless the liberals and the leftists in Egypt get their act together and learn how to do Obama-scale grassroots political organizing, they’ll never get a majority in parliament or get this opportunity.

The decisions of the president have been so high-handed as to be branded dictatorial by many of his critics, and have provoked revolutionary youth once again to call for the “fall of the regime.” Caricatures show Morsi’s face morphed with that of deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The composition of the Constituent Assembly was controversial. It was appointed by a parliament that was itself dissolved by the courts for electoral irregularities, and those irregularities contributed to a dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood and hard line Salafi fundamentalists. The resulting constitution-drafting committee was therefore unbalanced in being dominated by Muslim Brothers or their sympathizers. It began with 100 members, but 22 liberals, leftists, Copts and centrist Muslims gradually withdrew because of the Muslim Brotherhood dominance. Seven members of the reserve committee also resigned. For the remaining 78 to rush their favored text through instead of reconsidering their unrepresentative character is a slap in the face of pluralism and democracy.

The resulting constitution is a strange hybrid of the current French constitution and more Islamically-tinged constitutions such as those of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US brought fundamentalist movements to power but attempted to moderate the constitutional text.

The new constitution promises many rights, but also limits them in vague ways that could be opening to abuse.

As a historian, I am fascinated by the parallels of this proposed constitution with the 1906 Iranian constitution. In the latter, a committee of five ayatollahs was given review power to decide if legislation is in accordance with Islam. That provision was never really implemented (in 1979 it was made moot when the clerics just took over altogether). Likewise, the Egyptian constitution gives to the Muslim clerics of Al-Azhar Seminary (the closest thing the Sunni world has to a Vatican) the prerogative of interpreting Islamic law as it pertains to the constitution. Since the constitution puts Muslim Egyptians under Islamic law for personal status purposes, and has other provisions that invoke Islamic law, someone had to decide what Islamic law is. Having al-Azhar make determinations that then feed into constitutional law is a way of ensuring orthodoxy.

The Iraqi Constituent Assembly in 2005 drafted a similar provision, for the Shiite clergy of Najaf to review legislation and interpret Islamic law as it touched the constitution. That article was dropped, however, under severe pressure from the US ambassador of the time, Zalmay Khalilzad, and from other Iraqi groups such as the Kurds.

Putting Muslim Egyptians under Islamic law for matters of personal status is also troubling. Many secularists would not want to have their private lives governed in this way. In cases of intestacy, their daughters would only inherit half what their sons did. There is also a danger that this constitution could normalize the interference of religious groups and authorities in private matters such as marriage.

In the 1990s, academic scholar of the Qur’an, the late Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, was declared an apostate by fundamentalists. They then brought a public-morals case against his marriage, insisting that the authorities dissolve it and divorce him from his wife, Professor Ibtihal Younis, who taught Romance Languages at Cairo University. (Muslim women under Islamic law may not be married to non-Muslims). The two fled to Europe, where he found a position in the Netherlands. The Mubarak government allowed all this to happen, but said, at least, that it would tweak procedures to keep it from occurring again. Now, it could be open season on liberal Muslim thinkers like Abu Zayd.

Article 10 allows the state to intervene in the family, and article 44 forbids insults to the Prophet Muhammad. If a group decided that a scholar had ‘insulted’ the Prophet, and brought a case against his marriage just as happened to Abu Zayd, who would adjudicate all that? The al-Azhar Seminary!

The constitution is therefore a big step toward the Iranization of Egypt, and very possibly a death knell for freedom of speech and freedom of conscience.

In turn, such religious restrictions on what can be said publicly can be used to suppress science. Relatively few high-powered scientific articles are produced in Egypt that get cited by other scholars, and few patents are achieved. Things won’t get better if Salafis can go around accusing scientists of disrespecting the Prophet by contradicting some saying of his that they interpret literally. (This kind of thing has happened in Pakistan, which has a blasphemy law).

9 Responses

  1. Juan, my great-grandfather personally wrote the 1906 Iranian constitution document, being fluent in French and taking sections from the Belgian constitution.

    Interesting to see how the Egyptian constitution fares with the voters. By comparison the 1979 Iranian constitution won a terrific landslide.

    Morsi seems to have the backing of the Americans, following the successful ceasefire in the latest Gaza conflict and the hosting of Syrian opposition figures in Cairo.

    It appears the Saudi/Qatari faction has convinced the Americans of the MB being induced into blocking and turning back Shia successes following the 2006 Lebanon war and the Shia triumph in Iraq.

  2. Great post Juan! I like Morsi’s independance and I’m for the young people of Egypt. Stalin said:”Who owns the young people owns the future.”…and got 50years out of that. The young people will have to learn the game and hopefully they will win the future in a few years. That was interesting about the Iranian constitution of 100 years ago.

    • “Stalin said:”Who owns the young people owns the future.”…and got 50years out of that.”

      Stalin most definitely did not maintain his rule because he “owned the young people.” He gained and maintained power through the ruthless elimination of any rivals, both real and imagined. And his iron grip on the Soviet Union was ensured by the NKVD, terror, the Great Purges, and the show trials.

      • Bill: I’ve been reading Anne Applebaum’s new book about how the Russians imposed the iron curtain after WWII. Their emphasis from 1945 til Stalin’s death was imposing central control over youth groups in E. Europe. By 1950 the only thing young people knew was commie propaganda..and it was very effective for many more years. She was able to draw on many original documents and letters from the time.

        • Anne Applebaum’s, “Iron Curtain” is a great read, Dan. No doubt about it. But I read your post to mean Stalin maintained power through emphasis on youth. Of course, there were youth groups (the “Young Pioneers,” etc.) in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, and they were indoctrinated for sure. But Stalin based his power on ruthless elimination of real and perceived enemies, terror, and purges, as well as propeganda and brainwashing.

  3. This is the sort of post that needs to be edited a little bit, and then to go viral. If the much-vaunted social media is going to save the day this is its chance.

    Otherwise, and someone has to say it (although its usually a neocon cliché), Egypt’s first election may be its last…..for a long, long, while.

  4. If one looks carefully at the photos of the Salafist backers of Morsi… they seem all to have scars on their foreheads from abrassion of pounding their heads on prayer mats… perhaps not s good sign of liberal thinking. Check it out for yourselves!

  5. In the case of Iran’s 1906 constitution, accusations of anti-religious activities worked both ways. Many of the Shahs tried to make such claims against their opponents in an attempt to retain as much power as possible, but there were actually several cases in which revolutionaries successfully dealt with enemies through such means.

    Fazlollah Nuri opposed the constitutional movement and tried to rally retrograde forces to resist it until the constitutionalists had him convicted of “sowing corruption on earth” and executed. The Iraqi clergy at Najaf endorsed this move and generally supported the constitionalists. During some of the civil wars which pitted contending Shahs against each other, reformists had the more anti-reform Shahs declared to be both foreign backed usurpers and guilty of vague religious offenses.

    At the present time, conservative factions will far and away be the main ones trying to exploit these things. However, once unleashed, it can be difficult to control or predict how this kind of energy will play out. Generally, whoever has the most political power at a given time has the easiest chance of gaining from this.

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