Sunday, April 10, 2011

Moving Toward a Civilian-led Egyptian Government

Many Egyptians, despite having great pride in the armed forces, dream of the day when the military no longer rules society.  To do so, they must build the power of civilian authorities to exercise control over the military. To begin this process, they must put in place a constitution that institutionalizes democracy, assures the rights of minorities and guarantees civilian control of the military.

The revolution, which was sparked by Egyptian youth, led the military to play a more overt role in governing Egypt.  In fact, the military had been in control of the country since it took power from the monarchy in 1952. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak all came from the military, and many Government leaders either had military backgrounds or were selected by the military.

Most Egyptians have faith that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will facilitate the election of a new parliament and president.  Such faith is not based on modern Egyptian history, however. Egyptians believed that the military would cede power to a civilian government in 1952, but Nasser took power instead.  This time, the military is more likely to step aside, for two important reasons:

1. It has built its power through control of major parts of the economy, including industry and land, so it has little need to control government directly as well.

2. Through its massive military assistance program, the US Government has trained many leaders to understand the role of the military in a democratic society. Some Egyptians believe that the US pressured the Egyptian military into removing Mubarak and pledging to transfer power to a civilian government.

The underpinning of any modern state is its constitution or set of basic laws.  Egypt has had many constitutions over the last 150 years. The importance of constitutions has been diminished in the last 60 years due to extensive periods of time under emergency law, when many constitutional rights were set aside. Nevertheless, Egypt can only begin the transition to a civilian-led state by putting into place a new or significantly amended constitution.  Moreover, Egyptians must make sustained efforts to enforce and defend their constitution.

Constitutions represent the vision of a people for their society, state and government.  So far, Egyptians have been unable to begin the debate that leads to a common vision. Instead, they have paid more attention to casting off the baggage from the past.  After the departure of Mubarak, the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth negotiated, both around the table and at Tahrir Square, a set of demands. These demands included cancellation of the state of emergency; release of political prisoners; cancellation of the constitution; dissolution of the parliament and local popular councils; dissolution of the ruling National Democratic Party and State Security; and enforcement of judicial decisions. The Youth demanded a transitional presidential council with civil and military representatives and a credible transitional government prior to parliamentary and presidential elections. During the transition period, they expected greater freedom for political parties, stronger political rights and increased freedom of association. These rights would be enshrined in a new constitution that reduces the powers of the President, strengthens separation of power and increases the fairness of elections.
The SCAF, demonstrating its interest in expediting the transfer of power to an elected government, appointed a commission to propose constitutional amendments that would allow an early election of a parliament and president.  In a major break from the past, it included a Muslim Brotherhood leader in the committee. The committee proposed eight amendments, and the SCAF gave the population only three weeks to review them before voting them up or down in a referendum. 
The amendments made it more difficult to proclaim and maintain a state of emergency, limited the presidency to at most two four-year terms, required that "he" not be married to a non-Egyptian, strengthened judicial supervision of elections, required the president to appoint a deputy, provided easier access to presidential elections by candidates and established a commission to draft a new constitution following the parliamentary election.

Egyptians did not take advantage of the review period to analyze and debate the implications of each of the amendments.  Instead, they divided into pro- and anti-camps, based on whether they saw the referendum as increasing or hurting their chances of winning the parliamentary and presidential elections.  The revolutionary youth, the Coptic Church and many civil society groups led a campaign to vote no, based on the weakness of checks on executive authority and the fear that the Muslim Brotherhood or remnants of the National Democratic Party would win early elections. The MB and the NDP were successful in gaining the support of the population for early elections, as the referendum was approved by 77% of the 18.3 million valid votes. 

The SCAF has set parliamentary elections for September 2011 and presidential elections for November 2011, although these dates are not fixed. According to one of the approved constitutional amendments, the president and parliament will appoint a 100-member constituent assembly within six months of elections to rewrite the constitution over the course of a subsequent six-month period, which would be approved or disapproved through a referendum.

It is essential now for Egyptians to begin the profound public debate about the type of post-revolutionary society, state and government they envision and how a new constitution would enable them to achieve these goals.  Such a task is difficult, given the need to also deal with the past, develop political parties and put in place the rules and safeguards for free and fair elections.  However, delaying such a discussion will empower those forces already dominating society, such as the military, the remnants of state security, the Muslim Brotherhood, elite businesspeople and remnants of the National Democratic Party.  The solidarity among groups that participated in the Tahrir Square uprising must be maintained for Egyptians to see their common interest in putting in place a constitution that establishes a civilian led-government, provides civilian oversight of the military and other components of the security sector, provides checks and balances among democratic institutions and safeguards the interests of minorities. The constitutional debate must start now and must empower Egyptians to put in place the systems that enable groups, ideas and values to compete fairly for power. 

Rick Gold

Cross-posted in Secular Perspectives

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