Whoever emerges successful from Egypt’s presidential elections will without doubt face many challenges. But two, in particular, will literally define the presidency: the drafting of a new constitution and the future role of the military in the emerging Egyptian democracy.
The first round of elections in Egypt did not produce a decisive outcome; that will have to wait for the run-off round, scheduled for 16–17 June. They did, however, prove at least one very important point: Egyptians of all backgrounds are today determined to have a say in the future of their country.
At the same time, some things still seem very resistant to change. One of those is the role of the military in a democratic Egypt. The new role of the military has to be decided.
The role of the military in the new Egypt
The announcement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that it will hand over power by the end of June, after the second round of the presidential election, is an encouraging sign. It is however still not clear what role the military will have in the new state. SCAF has, on numerous occasions, declared that it does not want to remain in power. What exactly this might mean in practice is unclear. Most immediately, whether it is willing to stop meddling in the parliamentary and constitutional process, which is what a complete separation of power would mean, remains to be seen.
Furthermore, giving up privileges that the military have enjoyed for decades but which do not resonate well in a democratic state would also have to be part of a process of change. This would include no longer enjoying legal immunity i.e. no longer being able to act above the law. It would also include budgetary accountability and transparency; as a start, making the military budget known to the public. Lastly, it would mean limitations to its business empire which, by some estimates, accounts for one third of the country’s economy.
As was the case in Turkey for many decades, or in those Latin American countries that had long periods of military rule, the Egyptian military see themselves as defenders of the state. The problem is that, contrary to what they may believe themselves, their vision of the state may not be shared by the majority in Egypt.
Competing interests that derailed the drafting of a new Constitution
There is now a three way struggle underway for the future of Egypt involving President Mubarak’s former supporters in the military with their staunch allies in the business establishment, the Islamist parties, and the forces who led the calls for freedom and democracy last year in Tahrir Square.
At one level, the urgency demanded by some actors to speed up the process can be understood. The need for an interim set of rules that could fill the current constitutional vacuum is pressing. Without one, the Egyptian people have been put in the precarious position of having to choose between presidential candidates while having no idea what powers the country’s first ever civilian president would possess. Nor do they know what his relationship would be to the other organs of state.
However, the idea of putting such an important document together in haste, not reflecting a cross-section of Egyptian society and without consultation, is deeply worrying.
When the Islamists who control the two houses of parliament attempted last March to pack the constitutional drafting committee with their own supporters, the military and liberal activists vehemently objected. The result was the dismissal of the committee by Cairo’s Administrative Court and the effective suspension of the vital process of drafting a new constitution for the country.
A second attempt to agree on the makeup of the constitutional panel, currently under way, is suffering from continued disagreement. It is a matter for dismay that the process has become so politicised and is creating such uncertainty. Uncertainty provides fertile ground for those with questionable intentions to serve their own, not the nation’s, best interests. But out of adversity comes also opportunity.
An opportunity for a real Egyptian Constitution
There is, I believe, now the chance for a fresh start on the process of drafting a new constitution. One that can reflect contemporary realities, best democratic practices, and the needs and interests of all sectors of society. The process should ideally start again, on a new, more inclusive basis, immediately after the presidential elections are over this month – and the results have, hopefully, been accepted by all concerned. Without artificial deadlines to constrain the national debate, there would be time for everyone to have the chance to have his or her say.
When the process resumes, the drafters will have at hand an excellent precedent in Egypt’s 1923 constitution, which served the country well right up to the army coup of 1952. The country also has fine constitutional lawyers. Above all, and most importantly, it has a people who are passionate about the future of their country – and refuse any longer to be taken for granted.
What Egyptians need and deserve to be given in these times is a clear sense of direction, combined with reassurances that their views will be taken into account as the future of their historic and proud nation is being shaped. There is an opportunity now to set the course of their country for decades to come.