The hot topic in Egypt this week is the referendum on amendments to the 1971 constitution (here’s a full list from Reuters) scheduled for Saturday, March 19. It is remarkable that Egypt is having it’s first week with a burning issue after decades of political deep freeze — although many news outlets are rightly questioning the political engagement of the average Egyptian, NYT. Among the activists, however, sentiment has shifted markedly since February 26 from generally happy catharsis at the proposal, to trepidation at the speed and opaqueness of the reform process.
The proposed amendments would greatly reduce restrictions on voting and running for president, limit his (sorry, ladies) tenure to two four-year terms and restrict his ability to declare emergencies, but they are the unilateral work of a technocratic committee assembled by the Supreme Military Council (currently the caretaker of the presidency) entirely of older male lawyers and judges with selective right-wing opposition figures like the chairman, moderate Islamist (and historian) Tareq al Bishri.
These amendments are supposed to be a stop-gap until a new president and parliament form a constituent assembly next year to write an entirely new constitution, stipulated in the final “self-destruct” amendment, and then hold elections all over again. (The first round of elections for parliament are scheduled for June). But the faster new elections are held, the more likely establishment NDP politicians will be thrown back into power along with a handful of conservative/collaborationist Muslim Brotherhood politicians, who will then bend future legislation to their interests.
I attended a round table discussion at the American University in Cairo on Monday night between Sobhi Saleh, a member of the technocratic amendments committee, formed by the Supreme Military Council entirely of older male lawyers and judges with selective right-wing opposition figures like the chairman, moderate Islamist (and historian) Tareq al Bishri, and skeptical academics, jurists and activists who now oppose the amendments. Generally, the opponents feared validating the current constitution in any way, even if only temporarily. This makes sense, it is a Frankenstein’s monster of a document, arbitrarily amended by the regime three times since 1971 in response to Mubarak’s needs and as a result redundant, contradictory and over-legislated. More specifically, the speakers feared that rules requiring a majority of the next parliament support each member of the constituent assembly would marginalize minority voices. Their counter-proposal was to elect a transitional, limited-term president first, who would oversee a fully representative constituent assembly and usher a new constitution before elections for parliament and a permanent president in about one year. They (and angry audience members) eventually cornered Saleh over the issue of what happens in the event of the “no” vote winning out on Saturday; he threatened that that would “be giving all power back to the hands of the military.”
[Here’s a fabulous graphical representation of the timeline by Tarek Shalaby I found the evening after posting. It shows that democracy would only return after two years under the amendments scenario. It’s Arabic only and reads right to left.]
The passion and eloquence with which the critics spoke was revelatory of how important this moment is in the history of republican Egypt, much more than the eventual first-ever election of a brand-new president will be. Whereas until February 11, Egypt was an autocratic and oligarchic republic, it is now actually a military dictatorship in the Roman sense of the word. We are in exceptional times, between constitutions. Despite its claim to protect the sovereignty of the people, the military is currently calling the shots: they are sovereign.
But what does their sovereignty mean when the deep and wide subterranean networks of patronage and capital in the civilian public sector that took the place of electoral politics in distributing power throughout Egypt still exists, even if the current government is relocating the entryways and changing the signage (“Egypt Dissolves Hated State Security Agency,” Al Masry Al Youm)? What does Egyptian sovereignty on the global scale mean when the sovereign receives $1.3 billion in military aid every year from the United States?
Although sovereignty is most of the time a symbolic representation of untidy power relationships, the labor unions, NGOs and political parties that would bring it closer to the private Egyptian have been repressed for decades. Because of the insufficient time passed since January 25 to revive these organizations, the Egyptian people’s sole exercise of unified sovereignty remains one word: No. Do Egyptians understand this? How long can the military wait? And at what point would “No” cease to be constructive of liberty/equality/representation and begin to be destructive of the economy or general happiness?
We will start to find out on Saturday.