Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Egypt’s Race to a Constitution

by Isobel Coleman
November 29, 2012

Members of Egypt's constitution committee meet at the Shura Council for the final vote on a draft new Egyptian constitution in Cairo on November 29, 2012 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). Members of Egypt's constitution assembly meet at the Shura Council for the final vote on a draft new Egyptian constitution in Cairo on November 29, 2012 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).


Egypt’s President Morsi is doubling down. Just last week, he tried to assuage the concerns of opponents by giving the constitutional assembly another two months to work out their differences on a new constitution. Facing mounting opposition from secular opponents, and the real prospect of the judiciary once again dissolving the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly, he put the current draft to a vote in a surprise move today. As of this writing, the assembly has already approved about a fifth of the constitution’s 234 articles. Once the assembly approves the whole draft, Morsi’s intention is to hold a national referendum, perhaps within a couple of weeks.

On the one hand, I sympathize with Morsi’s stated desire not to see the assembly dissolved and the country thrown back to square one. Nearly two years after the start of its revolution, Egypt is stuck in political gridlock and running out of money. But shoving the constitution down the opposition’s throat is unlikely to smooth things over. Morsi no doubt is betting that the public will decisively approve the constitution in the upcoming referendum and all will be forgotten. Indeed, Egyptians—exhausted by all the political bickering—might very well approve the constitution, but the risk is that this power-play promises to just deepen divisions.

Ironically, the constitutional assembly had come pretty far in its deliberations to reach a compromise on several sticking points. When I examined the drafting process back in mid-October, I discussed several articles that were raising particular concern, controversy, and interest from Egyptians—notably the role of religion and women’s rights. In the draft that is currently being voted on, the article about the relationship of Islam to the state—“… principles of Islamic sharia are the main source of legislation”—remains the same as it was since 1971, despite Salafist desires to strengthen the language. New language does expand on the nature of these principles, but in a way that seems to satisfy (or disappoint) both conservatives and liberals alike. As in an earlier draft, the constitution also controversially includes a clause giving Al Azhar, Egypt’s center of Islamic thought, a role in interpreting sharia. From a procedural perspective, it seems unclear how the Egyptian government will take the perspectives of Al Azhar scholars into account. Unfortunately, the draft constitution no longer includes a clause upholding women’s rights—the assembly representatives apparently had unresolvable differences over wording.

Writing new constitutions is rarely an easy process, but one birthed through such heavy-handed tactics as now underway in Cairo hardly instills confidence. President Morsi’s recent actions feed into the worst fears that the Muslim Brotherhood intends to unilaterally impose its agenda through all avenues available. However, let’s assume for a moment that the Muslim Brotherhood is acting benignly just to prevent the country from descending into chaos and to keep the political process from going back to square one. Even still, by pursuing its current course of action, it is more likely to generate the kind of chaos that it is seeking to avoid.

The constitutional assembly has lost about 25 percent of its original 100 representatives to walkouts, and many of those who have left are secularists or Coptic Christians. To bolster its attendance, the assembly today brought in eleven replacements, primarily drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour Party— something that does not exactly cheer those already at odds with the Islamists. Egypt’s constitutional assembly has enough legitimacy problems without this race to ratify the constitution.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Penny Parker

    Has anyone done an authoritative point by point analysis of the draft Egyptian constitution yet? I’ve seen comments from the human rights perspective that would call into question several other articles. No ban on torture. No incorporation of present day human rights commitments from the international treaties that Egypt is a party to. No protection for non-monotheistic religions; limited protection for Judaism and Christianity (the other “People of the Book” besides Islam). Can you comment?

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Thanks for reading. Today, the BBC has a helpful comparison between the draft constitution and Egypt’s 1971 constitution:

  • Posted by Mahes

    Western midwifery to attain democracy and human rights should be matched with a clear conception of declining capacities, intelligent means and methods, and quantifiable goals.

    Before building institutions, people need food in their belly, and to attain sustainable per capita food security, there needs to be less “capita” and more food.

    Ergo, the need for liberal funding efforts to meet family planning/ contraception needs.

    Perhaps a blog post on where we are in terms of supporting Muslim women’s birth control, health and education (through media/classroom) needs would be helpful.

  • Posted by Isobel Coleman

    Thank you for your comment and the great suggestion. Family planning is a critical issue throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and the region’s family planning challenges are fairly country-specific: Yemen has among the world’s highest fertility rates, but Tunisia is below replacement level.

    You may be interested in a report that I coauthored–“Family Planning and U.S. Foreign Policy”–particularly the section on Yemen (pages 20-21).

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