Long line up characterized the two rounds of referendum to approve Egypt’s new constitution. The overall approval rate was 64% despite attempts by the opposition to disrupt the vote.
Barring a revolution or, the absence of properly established mechanisms for power transfer, political transitions become messy affairs, as Egyptians are discovering. The old guard simply refuses to relinquish power. In transitioning to a new order, the Egyptians approved a new constitution that sets out rules for how the country is to be governed. Weeks before the referendum was held (December 15 and 22), remnants of the old regime (the deep state), and defeated politicians had launched a campaign to disrupt the process. They feared that once the constitution was approved, elections to the People’s Assembly would be held soon. Islamic parties will again dominate the assembly as they did in the last elected assembly that was dismissed by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). Theoretically a legal body, the SCC is stacked with judges appointed by the ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak. The SCC functions to preserve the privileges of the old guard.
No constitution is perfect. As a man-made document, there is always room for improvement. Egypt’s new constitution also falls into this category and legal experts have pointed to several articles that need revision or amendment. One article in particular stands out like a sore thumb. The constitution grants vast powers to the military. Their budget will have no civilian oversight and the defence minister will always be a military man. The military’s powers enshrined in the constitution may come to haunt whatever civilian government is in power. That, however, was not what the opposition groups were concerned about. They were insisting on virtual veto power over the constitution.
Ideally, it would have been better if all political parties had agreed on the document. After all, constitutions are not drafted every day but how is a country supposed to move forward if a tiny but noisy minority holds it hostage and tries to disrupt the constitution from being voted on at all? Without a constitution, Egypt would remain in political limbo. This is what the opposition politicians wanted because they know they will be defeated at the ballot box.
Beyond the noisy headlines, let us consider some basic facts. In the 100-member Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the constitution, there were five specialized committees. Though the opposition parties were trounced in the election, their representatives — whether secularists, liberals, nationalists or Copts — were accommodated in each of them. Further, the points that were of particular concern to them — guaranteeing the rights of religious minorities and interpretation of the principles of Islamic Shari‘ah to be resolved by al-Azhar — were all accepted and accommodated. All parties signed on to the document — so what was the reason for their boycotting the assembly?
The secularists’ claim that the constitution lays the ground for the creation of a religious state is not true. This, however, does not mean that Islamic parties, especially the Ikhwan and the Salafis, should not be more open and humble in their dealings with others. It must be recognized that not all wisdom and sincerity is confined to their ranks. While a majority of those in the opposition ranks consists of opportunists determined to preserve their ill-deserved privileges, there are some sincere elements also among them. They should be invited to put their ideas on the table but in the polarized environment that has been created in Egypt, this may be too much to expect.
Egypt’s experience once again demonstrates the pitfalls of working within the jahili-established system in society. When leaders of Islamic parties in a Muslim majority state compromise on fundamental principles they end up with the kind of problems that President Mohammed Mursi and the Ikhwan are facing. For Muslims, guidance comes from the noble Qur’an and the Sunnah and the Sirah of the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh). Muslims also have the first-ever written constitution provided by none other than the best of exemplars in what is referred to as the Covenant of Madinah. Upon migration from Makkah to Madinah, one of the first acts of the noble Messenger (pbuh) was to draw up the Covenant. It was done in consultation with and agreement of all the power factions in the city-state. It must be borne in mind that Muslims were still a minority in Madinah, yet the non-Muslims — whether from the Arabian or Jewish tribes — readily accepted the document because it guaranteed their juridical and political rights, and in the case of the Jews, their religious rights as well.
True, the noble Messenger (pbuh) and his small group of followers were soon confronted by the fitnah of the munafiqs (fifth columnists within their ranks) but how he dealt with them also carries important lessons for us today. The Ikhwan in Egypt are faced with similar elements although they have already exposed themselves so it should be much easier to deal with them.
Beyond elections, drafting a constitution and striking political deals with opponents, lies a more fundamental point: the question of legitimacy. In Islam, legitimacy comes from Allah (Âr) by following His ordained laws. These are not contingent upon people’s approval. Even if a single individual adheres to them, he has legitimacy. After all, there were many communities that rejected the message brought to them by the Prophets of Allah (Å) but that did not detract from the fact that these Prophets had legitimacy.
People’s understanding and subsequent conviction in divine laws are important for their implementation in society, and in this vein, the political message given to them must create a sense of urgency, proclaim a clear vision for the future, involve all the important (and oppressed) constituencies, and pursue a series of short-term victories in order to build confidence and anchor the new behavioral changes into advancement toward complete liberation. If the Qur’anic message of social and political justice is clearly articulated there is no reason why Muslims — and indeed many non-Muslims — would not accept it. Issues of justice are universal values that most reasonable humans being would find appealing. Aspects of authority and power follow automatically. People’s vote does not in and of itself confer legitimacy; as we have seen in the secular, “democratic,” West, public voting has simply institutionalized an elected tyranny. It is legitimacy that leads to authority that confers power — not power that leads to authority that confers legitimacy.