Transitions

An Obituary for the Egyptian Constitution, Dec. 26, 2012-July 3, 2013

Egypt’s constitution died today, following a brief and tortured tenure as the fundamental law of the world’s most populous Arab country. The decision to remove life support was taken — as had been expected — by the nation’s military establishment. Death was announced soon afterwards. The briefness of its time on Earth, a mere 190 ...

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

Egypt’s constitution died today, following a brief and tortured tenure as the fundamental law of the world’s most populous Arab country. The decision to remove life support was taken -- as had been expected -- by the nation’s military establishment. Death was announced soon afterwards.

The briefness of its time on Earth, a mere 190 days, should not obscure its significance; quite the opposite, in fact. Its story offers timeless lessons on the dangers of majoritarian excess and the importance of sustainable government: equal parts tragedy and morality tale.

The Egyptian constitution’s truncated existence likewise meant that many of its promised institutions remained just that: promises. The legislative functions stipulated by the document were never established, and the national judiciary never warmed to it. Who knows what the constitution might have looked like had it ever reached maturity? Could subsequent amendments have made it legitimate in the eyes of the many Egyptians who scorned it? We shall never know.

Egypt’s constitution died today, following a brief and tortured tenure as the fundamental law of the world’s most populous Arab country. The decision to remove life support was taken — as had been expected — by the nation’s military establishment. Death was announced soon afterwards.

The briefness of its time on Earth, a mere 190 days, should not obscure its significance; quite the opposite, in fact. Its story offers timeless lessons on the dangers of majoritarian excess and the importance of sustainable government: equal parts tragedy and morality tale.

The Egyptian constitution’s truncated existence likewise meant that many of its promised institutions remained just that: promises. The legislative functions stipulated by the document were never established, and the national judiciary never warmed to it. Who knows what the constitution might have looked like had it ever reached maturity? Could subsequent amendments have made it legitimate in the eyes of the many Egyptians who scorned it? We shall never know.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, Egypt’s constitution was given life under dubious ethical circumstances: a display of rote majoritarianism that left opposition parties out in the cold. Perhaps this move seemed necessary at the time, sacrificing consensus for the sake of a grand experiment in Islamic Democracy.” Yet this original sin eventually proved its undoing, and like Shelley’s tragic figure, the mob rose against it.

That they did so, despite the democratic referendum that had ratified it so soon before, speaks volumes. The Egyptian constitution, as designed, was highly representative of the views and desires of Egypt’s Islamist faction — those best mobilized and electorally dominant at the time of its creation — but at the cost of an extreme disconnect with much of the Egyptian population. Similarly, the constitution’s deafening silence on protections for Egyptian women or the country’s Christian minority (between the two an actual majority of the population) did little to make the experiment more palatable to the Egyptian public or the international community.

Some of the constitution’s more controversial provisions, such as an article defining “the principles of Islamic law” as the the main source of legislation, or another elevating the role of the “principles of sharia” within national jurisprudence, were at first given a pass by some for the sake of national stability — only to grate all the more once that promised stability failed to materialize. In the eyes of many, the Egyptian constitution was always an extension of the ruling Freedom and Justice Party, not something representative of the population writ large. And when perceptions of corruption and mismanagement, of favoritism towards allies and heavy-handedness towards critics, led many Egyptians — even among the government’s Islamist base — to abandon the party, the constitution’s fate was sealed. It could not outlive the tenure of its creators.

The Egyptian constitution is survived by many Muslim Brothers, among them Mohamed Morsy (retired), whose vaunted ambitions for the document likely contributed to its chronic wasting and ultimate collapse. It is also survived by 85 million Egyptians: some euphoric, others indignant, but all of them deeply uncertain about the path that lies ahead.

Whether Egyptian democracy may yet survive the demise of the constitution is, as of now, unknown. Military seizures of state, particularly coming so soon after previous armed interventions, rarely prove conducive to healthy democracy. That said, neither do systems where elected authoritarians divide their own people into political haves and have-nots: a worryingly common state of affairs in the 21st century. If the Egyptian people can draw corresponding lessons from the ephemeral existence of their deceased constitution, then perhaps its brief and tortured life will not have been in vain.

Rest in peace.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

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