Failed revolutions: Mao’s China, Lenin’s Russia, Khomeini’s Iran. Is Egypt next?

What's the true test of a revolution's success? The new constitution. Unfortunately, Egypt’s military assigned a commission of experts, not elected representatives of the people, to draft a new constitution – threatening to derail reforms those in Tahrir Square fought so hard to win.

Thanks to the startling grace and gentleness of the majority of the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples, we suddenly remember that human beings can be unexpectedly peaceful, loving, and inclusive in our millions. We’ve seen these nations’ streets graced with laughing children and jubilant men and women singing, praying, and freely mixing without regard to class, gender, or faith.

Thanks to their bravery and sacrifice, we understand why the love of freedom so evident in Tahrir Square has spread to Bahrain, Libya, and even Iran and China, setting oligarchs and dictators from Beijing to Belarus trembling.

While images of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square still linger in our minds, signs have already begun to appear of a response by the Egyptian military – now openly in charge – that is far less than what the people who have dared so much deserve. There are signals that the country’s military leaders hope to give the appearance of reform, while safeguarding their hold on economic and political power.

Constitutions play a critical part in revolutions, nowhere more than in Egypt after the miracle of Tahrir Square. The new political order defined by a constitution is what provides the final test of a revolution, not the breathtaking pageantry of demonstrations and martyrdom. The freedom born in Tahrir Square, the nationwide participation in self-government, and the collective rejection of corruption and misrule all deserve to be enshrined in a new constitution that is drafted by the people, not merely for the people.

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Only a constitution written in convention by delegates chosen by the entire Egyptian people through free and internationally supervised elections can assure the continuation of the freedoms that were recovered in Tahrir Square. Only such a constitution can change the freedom won by the protesters from a conditional grant by powerful Egyptian military officers into a universal human right, enjoyed by every Egyptian because he or she is human.

Weak reforms, weak freedom

It seems that the timidity of Egypt’s military rulers – their fears of losing power, wealth, and privilege – are threatening to turn the country away from what could have been, and still might be, a truly new beginning. Instead of a new order, a commission of experts and their military overseers have proposed constitutional amendments that may return Egypt to the same sad condition of the past, no doubt with some alterations around the edges.

For example: Although it is surely a good thing to widen eligibility for the presidency, and to limit an incumbent to two terms, no change is proposed to the current restrictions on establishing new parties. The Egyptian judiciary is to regain its role in supervising elections, but a new electoral commission is to govern the electoral process, and the powers of both the judiciary and the commission remain “to be determined by law.”

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Lastly, the Egyptian people are to be excluded from creating a new or revised constitution because the members of any constituent assembly must be drawn exclusively from the newly elected legislature.

If Egyptian military leaders exploit these and other ambiguities, they will leave the government and society slightly reformed but still unrepresentative and unresponsive. This is one of the two most likely outcomes.

Failed dreams destroy order

The other outcome is that a widening gap between the soaring hopes of Tahrir Square and the modest changes granted so grudgingly by the Egyptian military will inflame the great mass of the people. Captives of poverty, taunted by failed dreams – they could grow violent and destroy the established order.

Under these circumstances, it’s fair to predict that new leaders would emerge, those who offer terrible simplifications, who practice the cruelty of the just, acting now in the name of the people to punish the old rulers, but who ultimately prevent their supporters from regaining control of the state. Then the revolution begins to devour its own, and the violence can spread throughout the society.

This is the appalling trajectory of the failed revolutions of the past, of Robespierre’s France, Lenin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Khomeini’s Iran – with all their death and loss and crushing of hope. It is not too late to turn away from such a violent ending or from partial and stalled reforms in Egypt.

A constitution by the people, not just for them

The best way to avoid both would be for Egypt’s rulers to order national elections for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. If this approach were taken, Egypt would become a school of democratic self-government for the Egyptian people, for all Arab countries, and the entire world.

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In supporting such endeavors, the military rulers of Egypt and their American supporters must not allow fears for stability to cripple their commitment to freedom derived from the decency and common sense of the people. Here is the true antidote to extremism and the old regime. The new Egyptian constitution will be of the people and for the people, as Egyptian constitutions have been written before, but this time, it must also be by the people.

P. Edward Haley is W.M. Keck Foundation Professor of International Strategic Studies and director of the Center for Human Rights Leadership at Claremont McKenna College.

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