After the Constitution, a New Battle in Egypt

By Ottaway, Marina | Insight Turkey, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

After the Constitution, a New Battle in Egypt


Ottaway, Marina, Insight Turkey


The approval of the new Egyptian constitution by a 64 percent majority in a referendum in which only a third of eligible voters bothered to participate foreshadows a protracted battle between the Islamists in power and the secularist opposition in the months to come. Far from putting an end to the transition period that started with the deposition of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the approval of the constitution initiates a new battle that will determine whether Egypt can settle down into a normal political process approaching democracy, with a government whose actions are kept in check by a strong opposition and both sides abiding by the constitution and the law. The alternative is a perpetuation of the chaos of the last few months, with large demonstrations and occasional violent street battles between two sides that deny each other's legitimacy, disregard the law, and take arbitrary steps in the name of their own concept of revolutionary necessity. The street confrontation, if it takes place, will not be a replay of the uprising that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak. It will not be a battle between idealistic demonstrators seeking democracy and dignity against an ossified authoritarian regime that has overstayed its welcome. There is no longer any unity of purpose among Egyptians, as there appeared to be in the first weeks of the Egyptian uprising. What is being fought now is a battle for power between Islamist and secular forces.

The newly approved constitution will not determine the outcome of the battle. From a democratic point of view, the constitution has flaws, but not as many--and above all not those--the secularist opposition denounces. It contains no articles that limit the rights of women, no articles that limit the freedom to form parties and civil society organizations, or to publish newspapers. There is nothing alarming about the articles on state institutions: on balance, the system the constitution creates is more of a presidential one than a hybrid in which executive power is shared by an elected president and a prime minister confirmed by the parliament. But the powers of the president are clearly defined and far from dictatorial--above all, he cannot tamper with the parliament and other institutions. To be sure, the political system could have been designed in a different way, but what the constitution outlines falls well within the parameters of democracy. And it is worth remembering that the opposition forces that now argue the constitution creates a dictatorship were arguing a few months ago that Egypt could only be governed under a strong presidency.

There are some alarming articles in the constitution, but they are not discussed much by the opposition: labor rights are restricted, and while the constitution proclaims "freedom of belief" an inviolable right, it limits freedom to practice religious rites and establish places of worship to the "divine religions," namely Islam, Christianity and Judaism; another article makes it clear that Islam means Sunni doctrines--it is the rights of Shi'ites and Baha'is to worship, to mention just the most significant minorities affected, that will be curtailed, but not those of Christians, and yet opposition parties focus on Christians. These and some other articles should have been the focus of intense efforts to amend them before the constitution was submitted to the referendum. But the blanket accusations that the constitution curbs civil and political rights and discriminates against women, or that it turns Egypt into a theocracy, simply do not stand up to a reading of the document.

The crux of the problem from the point of view of the secular opposition is an article that nobody could discuss openly. After proclaiming adherence to democratic principles in resounding words, Article 6 states that "No political party shall be formed that discriminates on the basis of gender, origin or religion," certainly not an objectionable statement.

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