Egyptian Court throws out Fundamentalist Constitution-writing assembly, Insists on a Representative Body

Egypt’s administrative court invalidated the current constituent assembly charged with drafting the new constitution, on the grounds that it is overly stacked with Muslim fundamentalists and is unrepresentative of Egyptian society.

The court relied on a 1994 law stipulating that sitting judges and parliamentarians may not be involved in constitutional revisions, lest they misuse their position to give themselves more power.

The ruling is open to being overturned, but Ahmad Baha’ al-Din Shaaban, founder of the Egyptian Socialist Party, said that the country’s leftists and secularists would continue to agitate for a fair constitution whether the ruling was upheld or not.

Leftists have been mounting street protests against the constituent assembly, and gradually everyone from the Coptic Christians to the traditional clergy of al-Azhar seminary to labor unions and secularists have dissociated themselves from it. The court’s decision is the right one, and most Egyptians are breathing a sigh of relief.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi fundamentalists won the parliamentary elections of last fall, but some of them have confused winning one election one time with earning the right to forever shape the constitutional framework of Egyptian politics.

Polling does not find that most Egyptians are fundamentalists, and, indeed, there is evidence that they have become more secular in the past year.Mansour Moaddel’s polls find half of Egyptians now say they are Egyptians first and Muslims second, up from 8% only a few years ago.

The electorate may well have put the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in for reasons unrelated to a desire for a theocracy. They may just have been looking for representatives who are not corrupt, won’t steal from them, and are not connected to former president Hosni Mubarak and his cronies. To misunderstand such a quest for uprightness with a desire to ban beer would be a mistake.

Moreover, there is no guarantee that the Brotherhood or Salafis will will the next parliamentary election. In January of 2005, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a hard line Shiite religious party, more or less won the first real Iraqi parliamentary elections since the 1950s. But in March, 2010, the Supreme Council took a bath, and has only a handful of representatives in parliament. Yet it played an outsized role in shaping the Iraqi constitution, which is unfair to the next generation of Iraqis.

Bush viceroy Paul Bremer and later US ambassador in Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad had their fingers on the scale of Iraqi politics and constitution-writing, but they also acquiesced to some demands of the elected majority. It was the worst of all possible worlds, and having a constitution rejected by most Sunni Arabs contributed to the country’s ongoing instability.

Egyptians are independent and are not being forced into these unfair and dangerous ways of proceeding by an outside imperial power. The parliament can select a constituent assembly that represents the full range of Egyptian opinion, and it has a chance of coming up with a constitution that makes for social peace rather than creating widespread discontents.

Christians are 10 percent of the Egyptian population. Secular-minded Muslims are a significant proportion of the whole. The Egyptian New Left spearheaded the revolution and is vital. Winning one election one time does not give the Muslim Brotherhood the right to monopolize the drafting of the constitution. It should learn from what happened in Iraq, when the fundamentalist Shiites (allied with the Kurds) created a constitution that at least a third of the population absolutely rejected, pushing the society toward civil war. 

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