The desperate fight for Egypt’s soul / Will Islamists write its (NEW YORK POST OP-ED) AMIR TAHERI 03/29/12)
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A year after Hosni Mubarak was forced out of power, many Egyptians
feel that the real fight over their country’s future is just
For decades, the army-led regime kept Egypt frozen; now all options
are open, both good and bad. Which to pick is the question facing a
100-member commission formed to write a new constitution.
The commission consists of 50 members appointed by the newly elected
parliament and 50 others chosen for their legal and academic
Of the 50 parliamentarians, 25 belong to the Muslim Brotherhood,
while its more radical Islamist rival, the Salafist an-Nour (Light),
has 11. The remaining 14 are from secular parties.
Even before its first meeting, the commission has run into trouble,
with secular parties threatening a boycott. They claim the Islamists
have rigged the process in order to turn Egypt into an “emirate”
based on sharia, or Islamic law.
Watching on the sidelines is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,
which acts as the interim government. The head of SCAF, Field Marshal
Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, has threatened to dissolve the parliament
and reimpose military rule for a “necessary period.”
No doubt the process by which the commission was formed was deeply
flawed. In the recent elections, Islamists, hiding in coalitions with
secular parties, collected 46 percent of the vote — but thanks to a
peculiar electoral law won two-thirds of the National Assembly’s
Thus, Islamists claim 70 percent of the seats allocated to
parliamentarians on the constitutional commission. They also want two-
thirds of seats reserved for nonparliamentarians.
The maneuver is so brazen that even some Islamist groups find it hard
to swallow. One party, al-Isalah al-Islamiyah (Islamic Authenticity),
has walked out, while several members of an-Nour have criticized the
Further undermining the commission’s credibility is the fact that
Egypt’s best-known constitutionalists, such as Atef al-Banna and
Ahmad Kamal Abulmagd, haven’t been included. The union that
represents Egypt’s judges and jurists calls the commission a
The constitution Egypt ends up with could influence other “Arab
Spring” nations, and define its role in the debate over the future of
Muslim-majority countries worldwide.
The Muslim Brotherhood clearly is trying to pull off a constitutional
coup d’etat, but the best way to counter it isn’t a boycott. That
would narrow the options to a sharia-based “emirate” or prolonged
Writing a constitution gives Egypt the chance to debate fundamental
issues of its national identity and political organization. The
proceedings must be broadcast live.
Even then, the debate needn’t be confined to the commission. All
Egyptians can join through the media, universities, political
parties, cultural associations and even tea houses.
Secular parties’ decision to prepare an alternative draft
constitution could help people understand that there are two visions
of Egypt. But it mustn’t confuse the rules of the game. (There can be
no democracy without rules and institutions.) And democrats must be
on guard against a military-Brotherhood alliance in the name
of “preventing disorder and chaos.”
The Brotherhood and its allies must be prevented from rushing the
process in the hope that an ill-informed public will swallow whatever
witches’ brew they dish out through the commission. Any draft
constitution should be ratified in a popular referendum, not with a
simple National Assembly vote.
Four issues are central:
* Sovereign power: Islamists claim that all power emanates from
Allah. Egyptian democrats insist that political power belongs to the
* Is Egypt an “Arab” state or a nation with a more complex identity
of which Arabness (uruba) is a part?
* Should Egypt have a state religion, namely Islam? At least 83
percent of Egyptians see themselves as Muslims. But it isn’t clear
how many want Islam as the state religion when that could turn non-
Muslims into second-class citizens.
Naming Islam as the state religion would have other consequences, by
making conversions from one faith to another or apostasy (not to
mention agnosticism or atheism) a crime.
* The legal equality of citizens, regardless of gender. Because
Arabic is a gendered language, despots have always used the masculine
case to deprive female citizens of rights and opportunities.
In Egypt today, it would be impossible to impose a constitution that
rejects sharia. But a constitution exclusively based on sharia, even
al-Isalah’s “lite” version, is a recipe for discord and the collapse
of the democratic dream. (Copyright 2012 NYP Holdings, Inc. 03/29/12)
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