Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 May 2019

Polarisation in Egypt continues as parties repeat old mistakes

Egypt's constitution should wait until the nation is more unified

Things change - and things stay very much the same. That just about sums up the current constitutional building process in Egypt. And things that do not change are often rather bad.

Egypt is no exception and the price that Egyptians will pay due to this constitutional process will go on for years. One would have thought that the Muslim Brotherhood's botched attempt last year might have instilled more lessons in this regard. One would have thought that the lessons of those days, where many were killed and tortured in front of the presidential palace would have been learnt. One would have thought that after the abysmally low turn out last time owing to that flawed, abysmal, revisionist and bloody constitutional work, the Egyptian authorities would have thought many times over before initiating a constitutional process. Instead, it seems that the cycle of polarisation continues and deepens.

This is the third constitutional assembly in two years to attempt to draw up a post-Mubarak constitution - and all of them have suffered from the inability to be representative of a national consensus. The first one was dismissed in April 2012, after the supreme administrative court pointed out that members of parliament could not elect themselves onto the assembly and that the assembly involved too few women, young people and representatives of minority groups. The second assembly was more representative but was overwhelmingly Islamist and still included members of parliament. Later on, it became even more Islamist as non-Islamist members resigned in protest against the way in which the assembly was ignoring any consensus-building measures.

Egypt's authorities had the chance to do what many had hoped the former president, Mohammed Morsi, would do: establish a new assembly that would be based on representing the overwhelming majority of Egypt's different political and social trends and those who represented the January 25 revolution above and beyond any political party. Mr Morsi, of course, rejected that measure - such was the style of majoritarianism that he and the Muslim Brotherhood preferred.

Yet the interim Egyptian authorities could have avoided the same mistakes. There should have been room for civil rights figures who have been deeply critical of human rights abuses under all regimes of the last three years, such as Heba Morayef or Hossam Bahgat, two famous civil rights defenders in Egypt who seem to receive more praise for their work outside Egypt than inside. Egypt boasts some of the most accomplished women in the Arab world, yet their numbers on this committee are woefully disproportionate.

The Muslim Brotherhood boycotted any engagement with this process as that would legitimise the military takeover, in their view. That is why there are so few Islamists on the committee.

The non-Brotherhood, post-Islamist "Strong Egypt" party was also unwilling to be part of the process, due to its assessment that it is not the time to engage in building a constitution when the country is so polarised.

Before a final draft has been finalised, questions must be raised about the process. The constitutional draft must be completed in the next 60 days - 60 days to write a constitution that will then become the bedrock of Egyptian political life.

In the midst of the incredibly polarised political environment, would it not make more sense to take a deep breath and wait? Could there not be an interim basic principles document, with a constitution to come later? Has Egypt not learnt that a bad constitutional process, let alone a bad constitution, has serious ramifications and deep consequences?

The previous constitution was not particularly horrendous. This one is not likely to be either. But the people of Egypt did not engage in a popular revolution during the 18 days of the January 25 uprising for a constitution that is just not that bad. That revolution may not even be mentioned in the document. The June 30 uprising is all that matters, though none of what happened in the past three years could have been possible without those 18 days in Tahrir Square.

Just like last year, the referendum on this constitution will not be on its articles or be treated as such in the aftermath; it will be on the road map established by the interim government. If it passes, it will be described as a reconfirmation and complete validation of the road map. If it does not - which is highly unlikely - the pro-Morsi camp will insist it is a clear rejection of the military takeover of July 3. None of this is what Egyptians should be focusing on in building a constitution for all Egyptians.

Just like last year, one ponders on the need for Egyptians to design a constitution worthy of themselves, their country, and the revolution that opened up the space to have these discussions. Just like last year, one ponders on the need for them to develop and follow a consensus-based process that will be to not only their benefit but to the benefit of their children and grandchildren. One hopes that the committee realises the weight of the duty on their shoulders and is careful to draw up a document that will bring Egyptians together, instead of driving them further apart.

In December 2012, I wrote: "Egypt can avoid having a constitution that plunges Egypt exponentially deeper into rifts and polarisation, causing Egyptians to retreat into their respective silos. But for that to happen, this constitutional process has to stop. Now." If things get much worse, those words may be appropriate to write again in 60 days time.

Dr H.A. Hellyer is associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Updated: September 8, 2013 04:00 AM