A controversial document proposing a new set of constitutional principles in
Egypt has caused great fear over the country’s political future. If this
government-orchestrated doctrine becomes binding before the coming elections, it
may lead to major civil strife. Technically, the issue revolves around a
document. In essence, Egypt’s soul and identity is at stake.
support the adoption of these binding principles – which would have to be
adopted as part of any future Egyptian constitution – want Egypt to become a
“civic” state, one with civil liberties and irrevocable free election
Opponents, however, claim that the new constitution should be
drafted only after the elections, with the commensurate input of the political
parties that are voted into government, and should not have to incorporate any
of these principles.
This is why the two major political camps in Egypt
today line up as they do. On one side of the divide, opposing the new
principles, are the Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party,
Freedom and Justice, the even more militant al- Nour, and the Building and
Development party. The latter is the political wing of the al-Gama’a
al-Islamiyya, the former terrorist movement that made peace with the Mubarak
regime after it was suppressed. Altogether, these three parties could easily win
an absolute majority of votes in the coming elections.
On the other side
of the divide stands the military’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF),
the present government it nominated, and most, though not all, of the “secular”
parties. While the majority of young Egyptians fit somewhere into this camp, at
least one of the more radical youth parties is actually taking the same stand as
the Islamists as they share a mutual objective of preventing the military from
continuing to rule Egypt.
Even if the political divide isn’t exactly
50-50, the chasm between the two camps frightfully resembles the kind of
division that might pave the way for civil war. This division hardly reflects
public opinion on the matter of the new constitution.
Rather, argue the
Islamists, the drafting of a new constitution or of a binding document of
general principles that would guide the drafters of the constitution after the
elections was already decided in a March 2011 referendum.
referendum, Egyptians were given the choice of drafting a completely new
constitution prior to the elections or making due with minor amendments to the
existing constitution, which was last modified in 1980, a year before Anwar
Sadat’s assassination. The Islamists supported only minor amendments with the
secular parties almost overwhelmingly supporting a complete revamp.
reason the Islamists only sought minor changes was clear. The 1980 constitution
had been modified to placate the Islamists then by rendering religious law
(sharia) “the” source, as opposed to “a” source, of Egyptian law. They hardly
wanted to see it go.
The referendum outcome was decisively aligned with
the position of the Islamists: 77 percent of voters favored minor amendments
while only 23% backed the “secular” stance – a complete constitution
THOUGH THESE two camps are hardly equal in the electoral sense,
they may still be equal in political power. The Islamists have the numbers, but
the secular camp, embarrassing as it may be for the liberals among them, has
more firepower, at least for the time being, due to their alliance with the
The SCAF knows that the issue of binding constitutional principles
is of critical importance. That is why it has zigzagged between diametrically
opposing stances. In March, it supported the Islamists’ position, but now it has
moved to placate the opposing minority and to assure its own interests. The
draft of new principles written by the government has named the armed forces the
guardian of the Egyptian state and its budget immune from parliamentary
oversight. The Islamic parties have vowed to overturn such a
Will the conflict degenerate into civil war? Debates over
constitutions and constitutional principles have frequently found their
resolution in assemblies or constitutional courts, but they have also often been
decided violently in street fights and even on battlefields.
Egypt may be
able to avert such disaster on the basis of three factors.
although former presidents Sadat and Mubarak are vilified in present-day
Egyptian discourse, and despite their authoritarian legacy, they did maintain a
dialogue of sorts with the Muslim Brotherhood. Arrests were certainly part of
this “dialogue,” yet these leaders did not engage in killings or bloodbaths as
were common under the Syrian, Iraqi and Libyan regimes. The Muslim Brotherhood,
at least as a religious and social movement (as opposed to a political party),
was always allowed to operate in the open. Most of the Islamists responded in
kind by refraining from terror activities. There is, then, a history of mutual
Second, the Muslim Brotherhood is well aware of Egypt’s
Unlike Islamic Iran, which reaps $70 billion
dollars annually from oil and gas that it can sell under almost all political
conditions, Egypt is an ecologically fragile state of 80 million people living
on 50,000 square kilometers, characterized by an economy with great
international exposure. Its economic prospects, therefore, are highly dependent
on maintaining good political and economic relations with the US and EU and on
the maintenance of regional stability.
These factors are critical to its
tourism industry, which makes up 12% of its GDP. They are similarly vital in
preserving revenues from the Suez Canal, expanding industrial exports and
securing international aid. The willingness of the West to deal with the future
regime will be highly dependent on the Egyptian military’s autonomy.
third factor in subduing tensions between the military and the Islamists is
ironically the genuine religiosity that characterizes the Egyptian army,
including its high command.
The Egyptian army, in this sense, cannot
serve as a target for the Islamists in Egypt in the same way that the secular
Turkish army has been targeted by the Islamist AKP-led government in
Mutual restraint and painful compromise will be necessary to
avert civil strife in the most important and populous state in the Arab
Given Egypt’s strategic importance, we should be following the
issue with considerable concern.The writer is an associate professor in
political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the
Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. His latest book, Israel’s
Security and its Arab Citizens, has just been published by Cambridge University
Press. This article was originally published by the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center
for Strategic Studies