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CAIRO, Egypt — There are times when Mohammed Abla misses the leisurely evenings chatting about politics and the arts with his downtown friends.
These days there is no such thing as a casual conversation for the 60-year-old painter. A visit to Café Riche, a venerable downtown bohemian nerve center, finds Abla deep in conversation with a lawyer, who is urging him to oppose the Egyptian army’s attempts to retain military trials for civilians. A few minutes later, Abla’s phone rings; it’s a friend from the northern province of Kafr Al-Sheikh, pleading with him not to pay attention to the Salafis, adherents of a fundamentalist branch of Islam whose popular Nour Party has a complex relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abla’s normally placid disposition cracks a bit after a long day of too many debates like this. Even though the Salafis and other political Islamists seem destined to be the big losers in an Egypt dominated by the military, Abla finds himself defending them against those who want them purged. He asks the caller, “What are we supposed to do? Kick the Salafis out of the room?”
Abla is receiving these calls because he is a delegate on Egypt’s constitutional committee. A longtime icon of the local art scene, Abla was shocked when he was asked by the presidency in August to serve on the body charged with rewriting the constitution at this precarious moment in the nation’s history, when the democratic gains of Egypt’s historic 2011 revolution hang in the balance.
“I thought maybe it’s a good sign that they wanted somebody like me. Maybe it meant they were really ready to listen to new voices,” he said. “But you do feel the heavy responsibility. The people have so many hopes and expectations. They need to see this succeed.”
Abla’s assessment of the national mood seems accurate. After more than two years of dramatic political competition to harness the revolutionary forces unleashed in January 2011, the government is now offering assurances that the country is stable and moving forward. But there’s a sense of weary desperation hanging over the current drafting of a new constitution, a feeling that Egypt is at a dangerous crossroads with dwindling options.
A new constitution
Egypt is both polarized and exhausted, a country seemingly in the grips of an extended nervous breakdown. Much of the damage was done by the process that produced the last constitution, ratified in a bridge-burning process last winter that left then President Mohamed Morsi politically isolated. In the process, Morsi temporarily granted himself nearly imperial powers, including placing all of his decisions beyond judicial review, a move that for many opponents, and some supporters, compromised the legitimacy of the Morsi government.
Morsi and his political Islamist allies calculated (incorrectly) that they could weather the fallout of forcing through a constitution that was heavily opposed by all of their secularist partners in the 2011 revolution. After the narrow ratification of the Muslim Brotherhood’s December 2012 constitutional referendum, many former allies such as Mohammed ElBaradei and the April 6 Movement called for Morsi’s ouster. Some even cheered a military coup that left him under house arrest, with a new military-installed government moving to purge the Muslim Brotherhood from Egyptian political life.
Part of the new government’s move to consolidate power includes replacing the Morsi constitution with one of its own. Ratification would trigger a rolling set of elections, extending through most of 2014, as well as the installation of a new parliament and the election of a new president.
Abla is a member of the Committee of 50, charged with revising a draft proposed by a 10-member committee. Both groups were appointed by interim President Adly Mansour, but everyone understands that Major General Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi, the defense minister, is Egypt’s true ruler.
From the start, the Committee of 50 has surprised some. It began by announcing it would not be limiting itself to the clauses and subjects specified in the 10-member committee’s draft. “The 50 started meeting and it was immediately like ‘You’re not going to tell us what to do,’” said Zaid Al-Ali, a lawyer and constitutional expert with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Instead, the Committee of 50 has launched what amounts to a massive rewrite of the Morsi constitution. That document contained a number of clauses designed to impose from above some measures dear to political Islamists. One clause, for example, asserted every Egyptian woman’s right to education and employment opportunities, but with the qualification “as long as it doesn’t conflict with her domestic duties.”
Committee of 50 spokesman Mohammed Salmawy has estimated that 189 of the constitution’s 234 articles would ultimately be altered or replaced. It’s a massive task on a tight deadline. Yussuf Auf, a Cairo Primary Court judge and a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Middle East Center, a Washington D.C. based think tank, said that by expanding its scope the committee of mostly nonlegal experts had taken on more than it could handle.
“There’s no time for the kind of in-depth discussions that are necessary for something like this,” Auf said. “They’re just too busy and some of them are simply not qualified. Two months is enough time to amend a constitution, but what they’re really doing is not just an amendment. They’re actually writing a new constitution.”
Two months is enough time to amend a constitution, but what they’re really doing is not just an amendment. They’re actually writing a new constitution.
It will be the second time in a row Egypt has rewritten its constitution in a rush and the second consecutive one to be drafted with a major societal faction left out of the process. Last time it was the secularists; this time it is political Islamists. So far, however, the Committee of 50 has avoided the public acrimony and frequent walkouts that nearly crippled the writing of Morsi’s constitution.
Instead, trying to expand its prescribed role, the Committee of 50 has conducted public arguments with the country’s powerful judiciary over the rights and immunities granted to judges and with the army over military trials of civilians. “They’ve been a little more feisty than I would have expected,” said Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University and author of “When Victory Is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics.” But the presence of Abla and a few other like-minded individuals on the committee was not likely to alter the final outcome much, Brown added. “There are some individuals coloring outside the lines,” he said, referring to the committee’s efforts to check the power of the military.
The question is whether all the public back-and-forth will actually have any impact. From the start, critics inside and outside Egypt have complained that the process seems designed to augment the power of the military, judiciary and secularist political elite and punish and marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islamists in general.
Headed by former Arab League chief and Mubarak-era Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, the Committee of 50 comprises an impressively diverse cross section of Egyptian political and societal interests — save the conspicuous absence of political Islamists. There are political party heads, trade union chiefs, Muslim and Christian religious leaders and representatives of the police, armed forces and different ministries. But there is exactly one member who could be considered a true representative of the country’s still-powerful and popular political-Islamist forces: Mohammed Mansour of the Salafist Nour Party, which sided with the military in backing Morsi’s ouster.
The other committee members are all figures whom most Egyptian who identify themselves as political Islamists would disdain. Among these are Kamal Al Helbawi, a former Muslim Brotherhood official who broke with the group years ago. Another is Grand Mufti Shawky Allam, who represents Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the “Vatican of Sunni Islam.” Most political Islamists regard the grand mufti as an establishment figure, almost a state official, and certainly not their representative. With the Salafist Mansour as the only notable figure from Egypt’s significant political Islamist communities, this constitution-drafting process risks being seen as another charter that does not reflect a national consensus.
The Committee of 50 is currently meeting several times a week to debate the document clause by clause, a process that is expected to last through the end of the month. The early stages were dominated by an open and unresolved debate over the military’s rights. Riding high on a wave of nationalistic fervor and a growing cult of personality built around Al-Sissi, Egypt’s military wants to establish itself as a veritable fourth branch of the government with very few checks on its authority. In addition to pushing for military trials for civilians, army supporters hope to gain de facto veto power over the choice of defense minister. Only a few committee members have criticized the military’s governing ambitions, but they are few in number. “The military seems a little unhappy with the subject being publicly discussed this way, but I suspect the military will get most of what it wants,” said Brown. “The default option is that the military wins.”
Egypt's 'own idea of Islam'
One of the thorniest issues is national security. “If you ask them, ‘What do you mean by national security?’ nobody is giving you an answer,” Abla said. That, Brown says, means the army could “accuse a comedian or an investigative journalist of undermining the morale of the troops.” Abla shares these concerns about granting the military such open-ended constitutional prerogatives. He complained of military representatives offering only vague assurances that this authority won’t be abused or used to silence peaceful dissent.
Abla takes his new duties seriously. He has studied the Brazilian, Japanese and South African constitutions. He would like to improve access to culture and create social support for fishermen, itinerant laborers and other vulnerable members of Egyptian society. “I want to give rights to people who live day to day with no fixed salary and don’t have a professional union or syndicate to represent their interests,” he said.
Perhaps the ultimate legacy of Abla and his 49 colleagues will be the way they deal with the language regarding Sharia (Islamic jurisprudence) and the influence of Islam on public life and government policy. The 2012 constitution — drafted in a process dominated by Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood — contained a number of small but crucial clauses that laid the groundwork for what critics feared would be an Islamization of Egypt. Abla said he often feels sympathy for Mansour, the outnumbered Salafist representative on the committee, who must now preside over the dismantling of most of what the group worked for last year.
“They had everything and now they’ve lost it all so fast,” he said. It’s not hard to feel a little sorry for them. They’re trying. They’re very active on the committee, and they’re trying to defend their position. So far we haven’t been fighting much.”
But Abla also expressed resentment over the way the Salafists and the Brotherhood handled the last constitution, claiming that their attempt to impose political Islam from above was both arrogant and contrary to the true nature of Egyptian identity.
“I don’t need to have a long beard to be a good Muslim,” he said. “Egyptians hate all this talk about Sharia. Egyptians have their own idea of Islam, their own middle way — not the Muslim Brotherhood, not anybody can change their relationship to their religion or their god.”
This unfolding tension has already produced some memorable debates on the issue. One of the first clauses that the committee approved last month assured all Egyptians the unfettered right to worship any way they see fit.
Salafist politicians immediately warned that the broad wording would open the door for the spread of non-monotheistic religions such as Buddhism or even atheism. Abla laughingly recalled a recent discussion with Mansour. “He asked me, ‘Can you imagine if your son decided to become a Buddhist?’ I told him, ‘No problem. In the end, we all stand alone before God on Judgment Day.’ He was so shocked that he started clutching his chest.”
Abla said he expects the final document to be less blatantly secular than Egypt’s Islamists are expecting. Clauses from the earlier constitution on minority and women’s rights are definitely going, but religion will still have a prominent place in public life and in the Egyptian identity, he said.
No matter what, he expects a concerted public campaign by the Muslim Brotherhood and most Salafists to defeat this constitution in an upcoming national referendum, currently scheduled for January 2014.
“This will satisfy maybe half of (the Islamists), maybe less,” he said. “We will have to do a lot of PR work to convince them. And it probably won’t work.”