On 3 July 2013, General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, the incumbent Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of Egypt removed President Mohamed Morsi and suspended the Egyptian constitution after ongoing public protests. Thus Egypt went again into the hands of army and the rise of the nascent democracy was curtailed.
That is not because Egyptians have no constitutional tradition. They do; it dates back further than that of many European countries. Nor is it because the Egyptian constitutional tradition lacks sophistication, richness, or poplar resonance. It has all these things.
What Egypt lacks, however, is a sound tradition of constitution writing. Mundane procedural problems were the Achilles heel of the 2011 transition, and now the body that made all those mistakes, the Egyptian military high command, has delivered a new road map. Not only is this new plan riddled with some of the same flaws as the old one, it will be put in place in an atmosphere that is anything but conducive to success.
In 2011, there was reason to be hopeful. There was a broad consensus in Egypt that a new constitution should be democratic, protect human rights, and whittle away the power of the presidency, which under deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, were virtually unlimited. Disagreements about the proper constitutional role of religion were sometimes profound, but the drafters were able to come to some reasonable compromises.
The document that the drafters produced did accomplish some of the revolutionaries’ goals. And the content was far less problematic than some critics alleged. But the process left a very bitter taste in many mouths. The drafters had followed the procedures laid out immediately after the 2011 uprising. But those procedures relied on the will power of a rough majority, not on inclusive deliberation.
The result was that Egyptians had a constitution but no widely accepted rules of the political game and no easy way to settle differences between the vying factions. Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of the Muslim Brotherhood, which used its electoral weight to dominate the process. Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of the opposition, whose main strategy could be summed up as a petulant ‘No’ to any Muslim Brotherhood suggestion.
The result was fatal. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood might have gotten what they wanted in the short term, but their new constitution hastened their demise. And now, Egypt faces yet another constitutional process, again forced through by generals.
That process also appears rushedand badly designed. Justice Adli Mansour, the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court, a genial but unknown figure, is set to serve as president, apparently with the unilateral authority to design the interim constitutional order however he sees fit. Critical questions of sequence are simply omitted. The military has promised to consult everyone but has laid out only the vaguest mechanisms for doing so. The generals have promised to appoint a committee to offer amendments to the 2012 constitution (that is likely a way to forestall any attempt to reopen debate about the military’s favorite clauses in that document) but provided little guidance on what to amend or how to do so.
There is a set of political actors who, in the last year, have raced each other to demonstrate as much bad faith with regard to democracy as possible. And there are traditions of political dialogue that make barroom brawls seem genteel.
In one way, Egyptian political practice resembles that of the United States — both societies like to do things their own way. Just as few American political leaders would have a good word for the metric system or international law, Egyptian political leaders love to talk about foreign hands and eschew international expertise. So Egypt will insist on finding its own way out of its predicament. It can perhaps do that in a productive manner, but only if it does so gradually, and only if the political parties learn to talk through some of their differences. Then, consensus will become less a weapon and more a tool for slowly and carefully crafting real constitutional rules. If that happens — and it probably will not any time soon — it will be in spite of the generals, not because of them.