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Egypt’s Roadmap to Crisis

[23 July 2011, march from Tahrir Square to Ministry of Defense, Cairo, Egypt. Image originally posted to Flickr by gr33ndata] [23 July 2011, march from Tahrir Square to Ministry of Defense, Cairo, Egypt. Image originally posted to Flickr by gr33ndata]

The significance of the transitional roadmap lies in whether it is capable of ushering Egypt out of the current crisis. The transitional government presented it as such, but the question that remains unanswered is whether it will indeed save the day or deepen the political rift.

First, it is necessary to recognize that this transitional roadmap was produced in a rush, in the midst of the heightened confusion following the unprecedented mass mobilization on 30 June 2013 in response to the Tamarod campaign that called for protests to force ousted President Mohamed Morsi and to call for early presidential elections. The repercussions of this have made the roadmap only one part of a wider political conflict.

The roadmap’s architects seem to have thought that the unprecedented protests by millions of Egyptians from 30 June to 4 July was sufficient basis on which to push for a new political process. They also seem to have underestimated the reaction of the pro-Mohamed Morsi camp, assuming that the Muslim Brotherhood will eventually have no choice but to submit to the roadmap. These assumptions were further enforced by the fact that the roadmap was, at least initially, endorsed by state institutions, the Coptic Church, Al-Azhar, the Salafi Nour Party (representing the Islamist current), and the National Salvation Front (representing the liberals and the left).

Before the official announcement of the roadmap, it was leaked that there was a consensus around holding presidential elections within three months, while the constitution would be amended in six months, followed by parliamentary elections in a period of nine months.

The constitutional declaration announced on 8 July proclaimed a slightly different order of events: Presidential elections came third, after both the constitutional amendments and parliamentary elections. The rationale behind delaying the presidential elections centered on the difficulty of holding it within three months, given the escalation of the conflict by the Brotherhood, both in the street and the larger political arena.Before the official announcement of the roadmap, it was leaked that there was a consensus around holding presidential elections within three months, while the constitution would be amended in six months, followed by parliamentary elections in a period of nine months.

I argue, however, that pushing back the presidential elections has contributed to changing the roadmap from being a way out of the crisis to a tool deepening it.  It has accordingly become a roadmap to confrontation, the aim of which is to primarily enforce the transitional government’s political will, rather than being a consensual plan that can be a subject of serious political discussion regarding its course of action and goals.

Deepening the Crisis

There are four problems caused by delaying the presidential elections; the first of which lies in not responding to the primary demand of the 30 June protests, namely early presidential elections. Implementing this demand—despite the difficulties—would have put any blame for the obstruction of the political transition on the pro-Morsi camp. 

On one hand, holding the presidential elections would have eased pressure on the transitional government—especially external pressure—that considered this delay a reflection of the military’s reluctance to transfer power to an elected civilian president. On the other hand, it is true that there are real security challenges that make it difficult to hold presidential elections while a number of locations in Upper Egypt are controlled by the Islamist opposition. This challenge is not limited to the president elections, however; these are also challenges when it comes to holding the constitutional referendum, which is first on the roadmap (in a period of three months of its inception) and the parliamentary elections that should follow.

Placing the constitutional amendments at the top of the roadmap’s agenda has caused a second crisis. By making the process of amending the constitution a priority, the perception of the process has shifted away from the original intention of making quick adjustments to the controversial articles of the 2012 Constitution that was passed under the Brotherhood’s rule. It is now confused for being a mission to draft an entirely new constitution. This confusion has accordingly caused significant damage, for the conditions of drafting a new constitution are not the same as apply to the composition or functioning of the current constitutional amendment committee.

The debates in the committee of fifty tasked with amending the 2012 Constitution have primarily focused on the articles that were perceived as giving room for the establishment of a religious state. The biggest contention revolved around Article 219 that affirms that legislation be based on Sharia, as prescribed by Sunni Islam. The Salafi Nour Party insisted that this article stays, as a condition for their partnership in the roadmap. Otherwise, discussions within the committee were slight.

There were no serious discussions of reforming Egypt’s political system—with the exception of the question of maintaining a reference to the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, in the constitution. The committee also proved to be incompetent when it came to articles related to the military, such as the question of military trials of civilians, the establishment of the National Defense Council and the appointment of the defense minister.

There is a danger in perceiving this constitution amendment process as one of drafting a new constitution, particularly because neither the time assigned to its mission, nor the country’s political environment are suitable for such a task. It is unwise to think that a new constitution could come out at this historical moment and in a period of four months.  After all, Morsi and Mubarak before him were both faulted for dealing hastily with the constitution drafting process, and mocked for “cooking up” the constitution to stay in power.

The third problem with the current composition of the committee of fifty has to do with representation. This is not confined to the absence of representation of the various Islamist blocs. It also more fundamentally relates to the failure to ensure the presence of different social and cultural groups in a manner that lives up to the stature of the constitution drafting process.

Therefore, the situation today is not all that different from the recklessness that produced the 2012 Constitution under Morsi’s rule. And it is possible that this amended draft will follow the same fate, falling after being passed in a popular referendum. This is simply the fate of constitutions that represent the political will of the ruling faction.

Therefore the current roadmap should not have confused the issue of amending the  constitution with the drafting of a new permanent constitution, which is doomed to failure given the country’s highly polarized and contested transition.

The fourth problem pertaining to the roadmap has to do with holding parliamentary elections in the absence of an elected presidency and its sponsorship of a serious national dialogue. Holding parliamentary elections now will open the way for unhealthy political battles that will easily spill out of control and steer the country further away from the rules of democracy. This is especially dangerous, given that three conflicting groups currently dominate the political field, namely the Islamists, adherents of the police state, and the secular democratic faction.

The decision to hold parliamentary elections before the presidential polls subscribes to a rather romantic vision of democracy that does not fit the realities on the ground. In fact, I argue that there is no constitutional necessity for electing a parliament before a president, apart from one procedural clause stating that the new president should be sworn in before the parliament.

Finally the current roadmap has trampled over the 30 June protests’ main demand of holding early presidential elections. It has also gone against the logical order of things, since a new presidency is essential for sponsoring a national dialogue, and has the required legitimacy to navigate the turbulent transition.

There are a number of fears that surround Egypt’s transitional roadmap. The most significant is that the intention behind delaying the presidential elections is to pave the way for Defense Minister Colonel General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run for president. Despite the Armed Forces’ denials, some continue to suspect that this is the case.

There is no doubt that Sisi enjoys wide popularity, evident in the mass marches that supported his call to grant him the green light to confront Islamists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet, there are other more realistic explanations for why the government is stalling.

Sisi realizes that there is no way forward in this transition without reaching some kind of arrangement with the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also clear that this will not be possible with the current Brotherhood leadership, which opts for suicidal face-offs with the state and completely disregards the fact that millions of protesters took to the streets against the Brotherhood presidency. The political process will therefore continue to be stalled until there is a new Brotherhood leadership that accepts the changing reality and is willing to negotiate accordingly.

The second fear that surrounds the roadmap relates to claims that the coming parliament will be elected through the single winner system that prevailed before the January 25 revolution. This system, as opposed to the proportional list representation, leads to the formation of a weak parliament, and as such overly empowers the president, paving the way for autocratic rule.

These fears remain mostly speculative, but there exists a necessity to revise the roadmap nonetheless. We should not succumb to the popular idea that being rigid about the roadmap—despite its shortcomings—is a reflection of the strength of the transitional government. This line of reasoning is exactly why the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces failed in managing the first transition following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak.

To avoid another political debacle, certain aspects of the roadmap must be urgently revised. The first thing would be to decide, and formally announce, that the constitution that is currently being drafted is a temporary one.

The draft should also include an article stating that a committee, elected through a representative list system, shall draft a permanent constitution within a period of four years. The composition of the committee should ensure the representation of all segments of Egyptian society, without exception. The drafting period should also give ample time for discussion and public debate on the articles of the constitution. 

This is the only guarantee for having a long-lasting constitution that respects the political will of the people, who are now more politicized than ever and more willing to take risks for their rights.

In addition to including an article that states the temporary nature of the constitution currently being drafted, another one should follow stating that the presidential elections shall be held within a period of three months. Once a new president is elected, the presidency should sponsor a national dialogue that would put the country on a proper political track that ensures a democratic handover of power. Furthermore, the law governing the parliamentary and municipal elections should be revised, which is something that has not seriously taken place for the past two and a half years. And of course, the role of the military and military-civilian relationships should be subject to serious discussion.

In short, it is impossible to draft a permanent constitution in the midst of the current political tension, in the absence of clear rules accepted by the various factions, and in a time-span that leaves no room for public debates and discussions.

The reason why our constitution continues to falter is that the winning faction perceives it as political booty. We have learned this the hard way through our political experimentation since the January 25 revolution, and I see no point in continuing to commit the same mistakes.

[This piece was originally published in Arabic by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). The English version appeared in a two-part series in Mada Masr]

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