While there are some serious problems with the draft Egyptian constitution, much of the criticism of President Mohammed Morsy by the Egyptian opposition and much of the media has badly misrepresented the facts. Morsy, Egypt’s first democratically elected President since Independence in 1953, over-ruled judges most of whom are appointees of the former dictator Mubarak or of the military (1).
These judges have not only found almost everyone charged with killing, injuring or ordering the killing of unarmed protesters under Mubarak not guilty, they have also attempted to dissolve the elected Egyptian parliament and were considering dissolving a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution which includes representatives of trade unions, Coptic Christians, Al Azhar (an Islamic theological university, but one critical of the Muslim Brotherhood) – and this was after the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court judges had dissolved the previous Constituent Assembly, with the new Assembly being much more representative as a result (2) – (5).
Morsi’s decree merely allowed him to over-rule the dictatorship era judges until a new constitution was in place. This was to be for eight months as the constituent assembly finished drafting the new constitution (6).
(Some members of the opposition say he should have maintained the 1971 Constitution, but the 1971 constitution gives the President the power to to appoint or sack the Prime Minister and the entire cabinet (Article 141) and to choose when to dissolve the upper and lower houses of parliament to call new elections for them (e.g Article 204) (7). The new draft constitution says the President has to get parliament’s approval for his choice of Prime Minister and to go to war. So the draft constitution puts more limits on the President’s power than the existing 1971 one does.(8)- (10))
When the opposition claimed that Morsy was taking too many powers to himself and accused him of making himself a dictator he brought the referendum on the new constitution forward to 15th December so he would have the powers for less than a month (11). Since then the opposition first said they wanted the referendum on the new constitution delayed until a wider range of people got input into the new draft constitution, before saying they want it cancelled entirely (12).
The draft constitution written by the Constituent Assembly, while it includes some very questionable Islamic fundamentalist aspects (e.g the only religions permitted are Muslim, Christian and Jewish ; and religious education is to be a core subject in primary and secondary schools) is in many ways much more progressive than the 1971 constitution – for instance including equality for women (marred by a qualification that this be where it would not conflict with Islam) and the right of all employees to have a share of profits of any firm or co-operative they work for, as well as for some employees to sit on the board of directors of any firm , plus a guarantee of the right to adequate housing, transportation, food and clothing, provided by the state where necessary (13).
The lack of protections in the Constitution seems to be far more serious for Shia Muslims and Baha’i (both considered “false” Muslims by Sunnis, the Muslim majority in Egypt) than Coptic Christians or women. As with Burmese Rohingya Muslims in Burma being labelled “not Burmese” by the Buddhist majority, the Sunni majority in Egypt say Egyptian Shia should “go back to their own country” (14).
Some of the claims that the draft constitution makes no reference to womens’ rights are wrong if you read it though (15) – (16).
While the draft constitution makes many references to Islam and Sharia Law it says Al Azhar – Cairo’s main Islamic university – will decide on what does and does not conform to Islam or Sharia. Al Azhar’s current head was appointed by Mubarak, is fiercely critical of the Musim Brotherhood and is widely considered much more moderate than his predecessor, so any Egyptian version of Islamic law is likely to be much more moderate than that of the Taliban (18). This could change though, if a more extreme leadership takes over Al Azhar – and this is one of the major problems with the draft constitution. However if a majority of Egyptians vote for it, it will be hard to call this undemocratic.
The 1971 Constitution also says Sharia was to be the main source of legislation and it’s section on women’s rights is almost identical to the draft constitution’s. The only areas in which the draft constitution seems to be less progressive are in switching from freedom of religion to only allowing Islam, Judaism or Christianity; and in banning the NDP party which was Mubarak’s party and which had banned the Muslim Brotherhood (19).
Of course a progressive constitution does not guarantee progressive policies – and much of the opposition accuse the Brotherhood of continuing Mubarak’s neo-liberal policies on the orders of the IMF (20).
The opposition say Morsi has had his own people killed, just like Mubarak. Yet it seems so far that both sides’ supporters are killing one another (21). It’s possible Morsi is using Brotherhood thugs the way Mubarak used hired thugs to attack his opponents and claim no involvement, but it’s equally possible that both sides’ supporters are simply getting out of control.
Some revolutionaries seem to believe that any government which does not give them exactly what they or their party wants is illegitimate. The reality is that no government can ever give everyone exactly what they want, because there are too many different people and groups who want conflicting things. Morsi’s government is far from perfect, but it is at least democratically elected, so has some legitimacy whether the opposition, I or anyone else, likes or dislikes it’s policies and views.
While some opposition leaders, like Ayman Nour, have agreed to talks with Morsi, others like El Baradei, who refuse, may simply need to accept that they are in a minority and they will have to compromise to get even a little of what they want (22).
Of course being elected is not a blank cheque to do whatever you like without giving the people who elected you a say on it, but Morsi is providing the people with a say through a referendum.
Ideally a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution should be elected directly, rather than indirectly by the elected parliament, as with the current Egyptian one. The opposition seem to have decided that they will not accept anything except new elections months after the recent ones, on the grounds that they didn’t like the results of the last one. That is not reasonable and it is not likely that the results of new elections would be different.
All that the opposition’s refusal to talk to the elected President is doing is strengthening the hand of the military and former members of Mubarak’s dictatorship. Likely results could be a military coup and another military regime or dictatorship, or, even more likely, pushing the Muslim Brotherhood into the arms of the military.
(There has already been a sign of the latter in Morsy’s decree giving the military the power to arrest and try civilians until the 15th December referendum. The draft constitution also makes a General elected by other military officers the Commander in Chief of the military – rather than the elected head of government being the CinC as in most democracies. There are also disturbing allegations that anti-Morsi protesters are being tortured by Muslim Brotherhood members before being handed over to police to be jailed (23) – (25)).
Neither outcome would be progress towards most of the revolutionaries’ aims. Much of the draft constitution would be. If they want it changed (and some of it badly needs changed) they should do what people have to do for a democracy to function – start discussing it with their opponents and negotiate a compromise that keeps the military and the former Mubarak regime cronies side-lined.
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood also have to make compromises – starting with ending their refusal to delay the referendum on the new constitution until a draft more acceptable to the secular minority in Egypt and to religious minorities can be agreed on. This does not mean they have to accept the rulings of a constitutional court made up of appointees and sympathisers of the former dictator though (26).
The opposition have to remember that an indefinite delay in putting a new constitution into place could play into the hands of the military and former Mubarak regime members though, who could use the continuing instability as an excuse for a military coup that excludes any elected government.
Morsi has to remember that being in the majority in a democracy does not mean you can ignore the wishes of the minority entirely – and that around half the people who elected him were voting against Shafik and the Mubarak regime remnants rather than for him or the Brotherhood.
It’s possible that Morsi could yet turn out to be a would-be dictator and the Brotherhood could yet try to enforce fundamentalist Islam on all Egyptians, but a division between the secular and religious opposition to the former dictatorship and military rule could turn this into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dialogue with them would be much better than making the Brotherhood likely to ally with the military, as has happened with Islamic fundamentalist parties and the military in Pakistan.
And if the opposition believe they can overthrow an elected President and an elected parliament as easily as they overthrew Mubarak, they are likely to be kidding themselves. In a democracy sometimes you have to accept election results that you don’t like.
(1) = CNN 23 Nov 2012 ‘Egypt's Morsy says courts can't overturn him’, http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/22/world/meast/egypt-morsy-powers/index.html ; 2nd and 3rd paragraphs ‘Morsy also ordered retrials and reinvestigations in the deaths of protesters during last year's uprising against strongman Hosni Mubarak. That could lead to the reprosecution of Mubarak, currently serving a life prison term, and several acquitted officials who served under him…The order for retrials could please some Egyptians who've expressed disappointment that security officers and others have escaped legal consequences over last year's protester crackdown by the Mubarak regime.’
(2) = BBC News 14 Jun 2012 ‘Egypt supreme court calls for parliament to be dissolved’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18439530
(3) = BBC News 09 Jul 2012 ‘Egypt court challenges Mursi's reopening of parliament’,
(4) = New York Times 05 Dec 2012 ‘Egyptian Court Postpones Ruling on Constitutional Assembly’, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/03/world/middleeast/egypt-morsi-constitution-vote.html ; 1st paragraph ‘Egypt’s constitutional court on Sunday put off its much-awaited ruling on the legitimacy of the Islamist-led legislative assembly that drafted a new charter last week, accusing a crowd of Islamists outside the courthouse of intimidating its judges’
(5) = New York Times 05 Dec 2012 ‘Egyptian Court Postpones Ruling on Constitutional Assembly’, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/03/world/middleeast/egypt-morsi-constitution-vote.html ; 6th paragraph ‘Egyptian courts had previously dissolved both the elected Parliament and an earlier Constitutional Assembly, and the breakup of the current one would have completely undone the transition. President Mohamed Morsi cited the pending ruling on Nov. 22 when he put his own edicts above judicial review until ratification of the constitution, saying that he intended to protect the assembly until it finished its work.’
(6) = Egypt Independent 22 Nov 2012 ‘Morsy issues new constitutional declaration’, http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/morsy-issues-new-constitutional-declaration
(7) = Guardian 10 Dec 2012 ‘Egypt's hopes betrayed by Morsi’,
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/09/egypt-hopes-betrayed-mohamed-morsi ; 9th paragraph ‘A leader who wanted to unite the country would use our 1971 constitution until we got through this difficult time. But once again we have a presidency that would see Egyptians murdering Egyptians on the streets before it puts aside party politics and tries to lead honestly in the interests of the people.’
(8) = Egypt State Information Service ‘Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt 1971’, http://www.sis.gov.eg/en/LastPage.aspx?Category_ID=208
(9) = Reuters 30 Nov 2012 ‘Factbox: Egypt's draft constitution’,
http://news.yahoo.com/factbox-egypts-draft-constitution-001332044--sector.html ; ‘POWERS - The constitution limits the president to two four-year terms. The president must secure parliament's approval for his choice of prime minister. The head of state can declare war with parliament's approval, but must consult a newly defined national defense council, in which generals outnumber civilians.’
(10) = Egypt 12 Feb 2012 ‘Egypt's draft constitution translated’, http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/egypt-s-draft-constitution-translated
(11) = BBC News 10 Dec 2012 ‘Egypt: Who holds the power?’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-18779934
(12) = Channel 4 News 09 Dec 2012 ‘Cairo protests: opposition demands referendum cancellation’, http://www.channel4.com/news/cairo-protests-opposition-demands-referendum-cancellation
(13) = Egypt State Information Service ‘Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt 1971’, http://www.sis.gov.eg/en/LastPage.aspx?Category_ID=208
(14) = New Statesman 03 Jul 2012 ‘The plight of Egypt’s forgotten Shia minority’, http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/world-affairs/2012/07/plight-egypt%E2%80%99s-forgotten-shia-minority
(15) = Amnesty International 30 Nov 2012 ‘Egypt’s new constitution limits fundamental freedoms and ignores the rights of women’, http://www.amnesty.org/en/news/egypt-s-new-constitution-limits-fundamental-freedoms-and-ignores-rights-women-2012-11-30
(16) = See (8) above
(17) = Unreported World, Channel 4 (UK), Series 2012, ‘ Episode 14 - Egypt: Sex, Mobs and Revolution’, http://www.channel4.com/programmes/unreported-world/episode-guide/series-2012/episode-14
(18) = Al Jazeera 28 May 2010 ‘Egypt appoints senior Sunni figure’, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2010/03/2010319165631215994.html
(19) = BBC News 30 Nov 2012 ‘Comparison of Egypt's suspended and draft constitutions’, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20555478
(20) = Guardian 10 Dec 2012 ‘Egypt's hopes betrayed by Morsi’,
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/09/egypt-hopes-betrayed-mohamed-morsi ; by Ahdaf Soueif; 4th paragraph ‘Concerning the economy it's become clear that the Brotherhood's programme is basically Mubarak's: Morsi visited China accompanied by some of the biggest business allies of Mubarak; the banking communities talk of deals already being made by high-ranking officials and their relatives, and borrowing from the IMF and the World Bank is suddenly not sinful. Meanwhile, the president is able to issue the wildest constitutional declarations but is unable to make the smallest step towards establishing minimum and maximum wages.’
(21) = Independent 06 Dec 2012 ‘Egyptian military halts Cairo clashes after seven are killed’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/egyptian-military-halts-cairo-clashes-after-seven-are-killed-8389573.html 6th and 15th paragraphs ‘Officials said seven people had been killed and 350 wounded in the violence, for which each side blamed the other. Six of the dead were Morsi supporters, the Muslim Brotherhood said… Rival factions used rocks, petrol bombs and guns in the clashes around the presidential palace.’
(22) = AP / Time World 10 Dec 2012 ‘Gunmen Attack Egyptian Opposition Protesters’, http://world.time.com/2012/12/10/egypts-military-takes-over-security-ahead-of-vote/ ; 9th to 10th paragraphs ‘Cracks in the opposition’s unity first appeared last weekend when one of its leading figures, veteran opposition politician Ayman Nour, accepted an invitation by Morsi to attend a “national dialogue” meeting. On Monday, another key opposition figure, El-Sayed Badawi of the Wafd party, met Morsi at the presidential palace. The opposition has said it would not talk to Morsi until he shelves the draft constitution and postpones the referendum.’
(23) = Human Rights Watch 10 Dec 2012 ‘Egypt: Morsy Law Invites Military Trials of Civilians’, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/12/10/egypt-morsy-law-invites-military-trials-civilians
(24) = See (8) above
(25) = Al-Masry Al-Youhm 06 Dec 2012 ‘Al-Masry Al-Youm Reports On Brotherhood Torture Chambers’, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2012/12/muslim-brotherhood-egypt-torture-chambers.html(26) = Voice of America 08 Dec 2012 ‘Egyptian Islamist Parties Reject Referendum Delay’, http://blogs.voanews.com/breaking-news/2012/12/08/egyptian-islamist-parties-reject-referendum-delay-2/