Will the rush to pass Egypt's constitution render it hollow? (+video)
Egypt's latest draft of a new constitution was already weakened because of constitutional committee resignations by non-Islamists. Rushing the document to completion could cement that.
Egypt's constitution-drafting committee put the document to a vote today in a surprise move that the president's allies say hastens Egypt's democratic transition, but which opponents claim undermines its legitimacy.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Egypt struggles for democracy
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The move by the constitution-writing committee shocked many Egyptians because President Mohamed Morsi issued a decree only last week that protected the committee from possible court-ordered dissolution and gave it two more months to finish the document.
His decree also made his own decisions immune from judicial review, removing most checks on his power. He and his allies have only doubled down on their stance as they confront strong opposition from the judiciary.
Dominated by allies of the president, the constituent assembly, which rushed to make last-minute amendments yesterday, is virtually guaranteed to have enough votes to pass the constitution today. But pushing through a controversial document drafted by a committee from which most non-Islamists resigned in protest over the past couple months will deepen the polarization that has crippled Egypt's politics and undermine the legitimacy of the new constitution.
"It is not unusual for constitutions to be written under contentious circumstances," says Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University and an expert on Egypt's judicial system. "But it is hard to think of one which has been so obviously shoved down the throats of all non-Islamist political forces, and over the metaphorical dead bodies of a large number of judicial organizations as well."
While imperfect or contested constitutions often become workable documents, "This is going to be seen by its opponents as born in such grievous sin that I cannot imagine any kind of legitimate political system arising out of it anytime soon," he says. "It may be a workable one … But it's one in which large portions of the political spectrum will feel politically excluded."
Delay for a stable democracy?
Hours after voting was scheduled to start, an Egyptian newspaper published what it claimed was a copy of the final draft to be voted on today, giving Egyptians the first chance to read what is likely to become their next constitution. The assembly finally began voting on the document in the afternoon, in a process that will take hours as the committee votes separately on each of the 234 articles.
Officials in the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing the Freedom and Justice Party, which Morsi headed before he ran for president, indicated that they made the surprise move of rushing the constitution through because they feared a counterattack by Egypt's judiciary. Such a move would possibly delegitimize the constitution drafting process, seek to strip Morsi of some of his power, and delay Egypt's transition to a stable democracy with a constitution and elected parliament in place.
Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court announced yesterday it would go ahead with a Dec. 2 hearing of a case that sought to disband the constituent assembly. This is the second iteration of the body; the first was dissolved by a court after secular and liberal members complained it was dominated by Islamists – one of the same complaints they have today. Egypt's top appeals court also joined lower courts in Egypt in a strike, giving a powerful boost to the judiciary's revolt against Morsi's decree sidestepping their authority.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, says the FJP and Muslim Brotherhood leaders also believed that the a court was preparing to rule against another constitutional decree that President Morsi made in August that put legislative power, claimed by the military after the elected parliament was dissolved, in his own hands. An attempt to reverse that decree would bring the military back into a direct political role. Their decision indicates the president and his allies still fear the judiciary, despite Morsi's decree sidelining them.