The Three-and-a-Half Republics of Egypt: the Cliff’s Note

Both President Mursi and the officials of the Supreme Constitutional Court referred yesterday to the new political system of Egypt as the “second republic” during his inauguration ceremony. I had not heard this term used by high officials before, so it made me suspicious of speechwriting-coordination between the president and the “honorable institutions” to which he is now hitched. I realize that “the second republic” is a purely political phrase to signify a break with the regimes of the past. However, this usage makes implicit reference to the French historical convention of numbering their major constitutional periods. At any rate, I thought this would be a fun opportunity to write up a crib sheet about the actual constitutional history of the Egyptian republics. By my count, we are at the Third-and-a-Half Egyptian Republic:

First Republic: The Egyptian Republic (الجمهرية المصرية).

From: July 26, 1952 (coup); June 18, 1953 (official); June 25, 1956 (constitutional referendum).

Political System: Military dictatorship, then capitalist single-party authoritarianism.

Little known fact — Nasser and the Free Officers exercised power for their first year under the monarchic 1923 constitution, with King Faruq’s baby son Fuad II on the throne as head of state (born 1952 — he’s still alive). Even before they declared a republic in 1953, the officers outlawed multiparty parliamentary politics and introduced their unitary political organization, the Liberation Rally. It took four turbulent years of Nasser eliminating his political rivals to cook up an official constitution in 1956, which 98% of the population allegedly supported in referendum. The National Union party replaced the Liberation Rally, but it was still dominated by big landowners and old regime remnants. There was one session of a new People’s Assembly before the unification with Syria.

Second Republic: The United Arab Republic (الجمهرية العربية المتحدة).

From: February 10, 1958 (provisional constitution); dissolved September 28, 1961.

Political System: Egypt-dominated authoritarianism.

Syrian elites frightened by the possibility of a communist takeover agreed to a total union with Egypt in 1958. Nasser remained president of the republic (unelected by Syrians), his right-hand man General ʿAbdel Hakim ʿAmer effectively became the Egyptian governor of Syria. A People’s Assembly of members of the National Union (400 Egyptians and 200 Syrians, naturally) met for one session from 1960 to 1961. Syrian business elites never stopped complaining about Egyptian political hegemony and its socialist-style policies applied in Syria. Syrian army officers staged a coup in 1961 and declared its independence.

Republic 2.5: still called The United Arab Republic (الجمهرية العربية المتحدة), without Syria.

From: 1961; January 10, 1964 (provisional constitution).

Political System: Socialist authoritarianism.

Syrian and Egyptian private sector resistance led to Nasser intensifying his socialist program (and his Pan-Arab rhetoric, especially after Syria left). Nasser had nationalized foreign businesses in 1956, but ramped up the nationalizations from 1961-1964 until all major financial, service and industrial enterprises were in state hands. A complicated set of political groups and congresses led to the creation of a National Charter (arguably a more important document than the Constitution in this period), which outlined the country’s new socialist goals. Nasser formed a new unitary political party, the Arab Socialist Union. The People’s Assembly started meeting regularly after 1964, where the right and left wings of the ASU fought over the extent socialism in new policies. Extensive student protests after the 1967 war crippled this trend.

Third Republic: The Arab Republic of Egypt (الجمهرية العربية المصرية).

From: September 11, 1971 (constitution). Amended 1980, 2005, 2007.

Political System: President Sadat’s halfhearted attempt at economic and political liberalization, resulted in a neoliberal oligarchic mafia state under Mubarak.

After a struggle with ʿAli Sabri, the head of the left wing of the ASU, and Egypt’s (semi) victory in the 1973 war with Israel, Sadat was confident enough to launch his economic opening, the Infitah. In 1977, he passed laws allowing multiple political parties for the first time in 25 years, closing up the ASU and shifting state support to the National Democratic Party. The Wafd, Nasserists, Muslim Brothers (as independents) and other small parties returned to the scene and ran for parliament. The explosion of political discourse, especially negative reactions to the peace treaty with Israel at Camp David, led to a crackdown on both moderate and extremist opposition. Fundamentalist Islamists assassinated Sadat on October 6, 1981 in reaction. Parliamentary politics under Mubarak developed into a system in which some opposition was permitted, but elections were rigged to allow pre-negotiated minorities. Infitah import and manufacturing licensing and recently, a state enterprise privatization program, provided a lucrative patronage network to Mubarak’s NDP, which managed to keep factionalism in the party under control. The military, while remaining a power center, increasingly resented the economic power of the NDP elite.

Republic 3.5: The Arab Republic of Egypt (الجمهرية العربية المصرية).

From: February 11, 2011 (popular revolution); March 19, 2011 (referendum on constitutional amendments); June 18, 2012 (supplemental constitutional declaration). There are many other SCAF decrees that affect the current constitutional arrangement: Ahram Online has an in-depth timeline.

Political system: Military dictatorship. As of yesterday, popularly elected president with restricted powers and no legitimate parliament or constitution.

If you have read this far, you are probably familiar with the current situation. The Armed Forces dissolved parliament on June 18, and with it, the representative constituent assembly that was going to write the constitution for Egypt’s fourth republic. Re-doing this process will take a while, and with political forces as they stand, the constitution will be profoundly flawed. Turkey is only now undergoing a democratic process to remove the armed forces from its legal hegemony in its constitution, 30 years after a military junta forced its current constitution on the public.

P.S. The French Fourth Republic lasted 12 years: 1946-1958.

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About ericschewe

PhD, History. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.
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One Response to The Three-and-a-Half Republics of Egypt: the Cliff’s Note

  1. Pingback: Narcissisi | Eric Schewe

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