The Monitor's View

Egypt needs rights, democratic principles before its votes

With the threat of Islamic groups possibly winning power and then hijacking democracy, Egypt needs a bill of rights and other democratic guarantees before an election.

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Arabs still living under despotic regimes are closely watching a pivotal struggle in postrevolutionary Egypt – one that may define the future of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.

The struggle is this: Should Egyptians first ensure basic rights and democratic principles in a constitution before holding an election? Or will a new parliament soon to be elected be able to ensure those rights and principles – even if some Islamic political groups oppose Western-style freedoms?

The issue comes to a head July 8 when 36 groups seeking a constitution before an election plan to hold a mass protest in Tahrir Square.

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Currently, a parliamentary election is planned for September – without many safeguards for a fair vote, let alone basic rights or checks on government powers. The newly elected body will then select a group of 100 citizens to write a constitution.

Newly liberated countries, faced with starting a democracy from scratch, often face this kind of chicken-and-egg dilemma. Not all have succeeded in making the transition – most notably Iran, where Muslim clerics hijacked a weak democracy after the 1979 revolution.

The Egyptian revolt that ousted Hosni Mubarak five months ago clearly defined what the people don’t want: a life of fear under a corrupt regime that did little for the economy.

But with the military now in charge of a transitional government, Egyptians still lack a firm consensus on the type of democracy they do want. Too much of the public debate focuses on the maneuvering for power between groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, liberal secularists, and those once aligned with Mr. Mubarak.

Egyptians don’t seem to be asking fundamental questions, such as:

Does sovereignty lie with the individual, the state, or even a particular religion such as Islam? Are the rights of each individual universal and equal? How can the power of government be checked to preserve individual freedoms?

In recent weeks, at least three groups have offered a “bill of rights” and endorsed the principles of a civic state in hopes that Egyptian society can reach a preelection consensus on what the final constitution should be. One group was al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Sunni Muslim religious authority.

The military, which appears eager to hand over power to civilians, botched an attempt to come up with a constitution in March when it held a referendum on changes to the 1971 Constitution, which was designed mainly for autocrats to rule. While the referendum passed, the military then altered or added several provisions in secret, discrediting both the new document and the referendum.

Such political foolery is the very reason why a constitution that guarantees citizenship rights and limits on power must be in place before anyone is elected. Otherwise, those elected can easily abuse the system to stay in power and impose restrictions on liberties. And why elect one body if another election is then required under a new constitution?

The one group suspected of planning to win power by election and then altering the constitution to stay in power is the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most popular group, with an estimated 600,000 members. Its leaders oppose writing a constitution first and strongly support imposing Islamic principles, if not practices, in Egyptian law.

For now, the Brotherhood claims that its political party will not seek a majority in parliament and won’t put up a presidential candidate. But its stern objections to seeking an agreement on a constitution before an election only adds to public suspicions about its goal of running Egypt under sharia law. There are even doubts that the Brotherhood believes in the idea of citizenship, in which government is run by rule of law rather than a religion.

Given Egypt’s history as a role model for the Arab world, much is riding on the outcome of this debate. The Arab Spring in other countries is incomplete and needs renewed energy from seeing Egypt create a democracy that can last with guaranteed freedoms, especially freedom of religion and the press.

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