Egyptian politics over the past nine months has not been an edifying sight, but the new constitution does not spell the end of democracy in Egypt. It scares the 36 percent of Egyptian voters who rejected it, but their fears are probably misplaced.
The revolution was made in the big cities, mostly by people who were secular in outlook. However, most Egyptian voters live in rural areas that are devout and deeply conservative, so three-quarters of the votes in the first free election went to Islamic parties.
The Freedom and Justice Party, the political vehicle of the Muslim Brotherhood, got almost half the votes but it did not really get a mandate to impose strict Islamic law on Egypt. Some of its votes came from people who wanted that, but some came from people who value the Brotherhood’s charitable work, or were just grateful for its role as the only real resistance during the decades of dictatorship.
The Brotherhood’s last political platform in 2007 called for a board of Muslim clerics to supervise the government. It also insisted that only Muslim men could become president.
“The state which we seek can never be presided over by a non-Muslim,” said Mohammed Morsi, who drafted that platform and is now president of Egypt.
Maybe Morsi still privately thinks that, or maybe he has realized that these rules are unacceptable in a democracy where all citizens are equal. It doesn’t matter. The new constitution does not contain any such provisions, and the main reason is obviously the Brotherhood’s tacit bargain with the armed forces.
The deal, which guarantees the military’s privileges, was necessary to persuade the staunchly secular armed forces to accept an Islamic party in government, but it had a price: the new government could not be too Islamic. This posed a problem for Morsi, because Muslim Brotherhood activists wanted to use their political power to entrench “Islamic” rules in the new constitution.
So Morsi had to walk a fine line. He had to put enough Islamic language into the constitution to mollify his own supporters, but not so much that the military would break their alliance with him. He didn’t walk that line very well.
The whole constitutional process was a poisonous battle even before Morsi became president last June. In April the Supreme Judicial Council, whose members had all been appointed by the Mubarak dictatorship, dissolved the newly elected House of Representatives on a flimsy pretext, and also dismissed the constitution-writing assembly that it had chosen.
But the upper house of parliament is also dominated by Islamist parties, and it simply appointed another constituent assembly with the same makeup. After that it was open war.
By October most of the non-Islamists in the second constituent assembly had walked out, and the Supreme Judicial Council was about to dismiss that body, too. Morsi’s clumsy response was to grant himself unlimited powers and forbid the judiciary to dismiss the assembly.
There was an outcry by the opposition, a fractious coalition of leftists, liberals and Christians, and the protesters were instantly back on the streets. But the constituent assembly promptly rendered the whole crisis unnecessary by passing the new draft constitution in a 29-hour marathon sitting, so Morsi canceled his special powers — and on Dec. 22, Egyptians ratified the new constitution by a 63.8 percent majority.
Small crisis, not many hurt. The army got what it wanted: henceforward, the minister of defense must be a serving officer, and the military will effectively control its own budget. The parliament cannot even debate it.
The Brotherhood got less of what it wanted, but there are bits of Islamic language in the constitution to keep the activists happy. For example, Article 2 of the old constitution (1971) says: “The principles of Sharia are the main source of legislation.”
Nervous secular Egyptians fear these bits and pieces of Islamic rhetoric are the seeds of a constitutional revolution that will turn the country into an Islamist dictatorship, but there is little evidence for that.
As for the frantic haste with which the constitution was passed — after two years of revolutionary upheaval, the Egyptian economy desperately needs the political stability that a new constitution and fresh elections (due in February) will provide. It’s not a plot. It’s just the politics of necessity.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.