Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution and its Implications for Constitutional Design

By Imran Ahmad, Juris Doctor Candidate (2014), Northwestern University School of Law

On the eve of the Egyptian elections in 2012, Francis Fukuyama wrote an article “The Failures of the Facebook Generation in the Arab Spring” in which he argued that the protest movement responsible for toppling the Mubarak regime, in large part by using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, failed to live up to its promise and present a viable “liberal, modernizing” presidential candidate who would represent their democratic aspirations. Instead, the Egyptian populace was forced to choose between candidates with ties to Egypt’s authoritarian past on one hand and with Islamists on the other. Apparently what unfolded in Tahrir Square was something less than a revolution. According to Fukuyama, “Facebook, it seems, produces a sharp, blinding flash in the pan, but it does not generate enough heat over an extended period to warm the house.”

Such a premature and pessimistic assessment should come as no surprise from an author famous for declaring the “End of History,” a thesis he had to later revise after the emergence of “radical Islam.” After all, Egypt was on the verge of conducting the first free elections in the country’s long history as a result of young activists tweeting and posting on Facebook. However, for Fukuyama, democracy means little where it does not result in an accepted version of “liberal democracy.” Hence, where the only choices are “liberal democracy” and “radical Islam,” Fukuyama saw only radical Islam, or a return to authoritarianism, in Egypt’s future.

Given the turmoil in Egypt following the 2012 elections, it would seem that Fukuyama has been vindicated. The country is already prosecuting the winner of the 2012 election, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the 2012 Constitution has been suspended. The military coup everyone expected eventually came to pass. As predicted by Fukuyama, the protesters who toppled Mubarak are no longer a relevant political force, sitting passively or even collaborating in the military coup.

However, it would be a mistake to conflate the failure of the liberal protesters with the failure of the democratic process and return of emergency rule we now see in Egypt. Rather, it appears that a number of events related to the process of writing a new constitution ended up extinguishing the promise symbolized by the protests.

Dr. David Faris, a professor of International Studies at Roosevelt University who has written a book on the role of social media in the Egyptian revolution, Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age: Social Media, Blogging and Activism in Egypt, presented an account of these post-Revolution events at a recent talk he delivered in Chicago at the Niagara Foundation. The talk, which makes up part of his soon to be released article, “Deep State, Deep Crisis: Egypt’s Failed Transition and the Limits of American Policy,” gives much needed context to the present crisis, presenting it as a result of structural problems inherent in Egyptian politics and a number of unforeseen circumstances.

According to Professor Faris, it seems that the revolution did not go far enough. Rather than impose a radical shift in institutional design, a decision was made that the Egyptian constitution would simply be amended. Moreover, the constitution writing process was immediately imperiled after a 2012 court decree dissolved the Islamist dominated parliament finding that candidates from political parties had been allowed to compete for seats reserved for independent candidates.

What was seen by many observers as an attempt to limit the power of Islamist backfired when Morsi won the presidential election. Now Morsi held power without the check of a sitting Parliament and no functioning constitution. As president, Morsi chose members of the new constituent assembly, raising fears that his unchecked power would result in permanent change based on questionable legitimacy. Misreading his mandate, Morsi also granted himself broad legislative powers and limited the role of the military. Framed as attempt to safeguard the revolution, he also decreed that no judicial authority could rescind any constitutional declarations, laws and decrees made since he assumed power. Finally, Morsi ratified a constitution written by the constituent assembly that many feared was too influenced by Islamists. This eventually led to protests in late 2012 that resulted in Morsi’s removal from office.

According to Professor Faris, the larger problem existing right now in Egypt is the “deep state,” a sort of shadow government consisting mostly of the military elite that is running the country underneath the surface of politics. The “deep” state goes largely unchecked and prevents the restoration control in the Egyptian government: “The process of large portions od the Egyptian economy and then the ultimate direction of the Egyptian state being controlled by these elites is really destructive.” Unless something is done about the “deep state,” a new constitution won’t change the status quo.

With the military back in power, there was little transparency with regard to the Committee of 50 in charge of drafting constitutional amendments to the 2012 Constitution ratified by Morsi. Professor Faris offered his own recommendations for a new Egyptian constitution. He insisted that there needs to be a shift of power from the Executive to the Legislative branch. Presently, the president appoints the regional governor of each province. He also appoints the prime minister. Professor Faris proposed a system whereby the president plays largely a ceremonial role and the prime minister is named from the largest party in parliament. He also advocated for a mixed-member proportional representation system (MMP) to ensure broader representation that more accurately reflects the populace. Under the MMP system, people vote for a party as well as a parliamentary candidate. The make-up of parliament must reflect the percentage of votes each party receives. Professor Faris would also require parliamentary quotas for women and local elections for provincial governors.

Professor Faris had very little hope that these proposals would be implemented. A member of the Egyptian consulate was present at the talk and assured the audience that the Committee of 50 was considering all these proposals. However, he added, transforming a centralized institution like the office of the president is very difficult.

The new Egyptian constitution, approved by voters in a referendum in January, 2014, addresses some of Professor Faris’s concerns while at the same time indicating that the “deep state” is becoming further entrenched. It reduces the length of a presidential term to four years from six and allows for a president to only be re-elected once. Parliament can also now hold a confidence vote in the president. Further constraining the president’s authority, the president’s choice for prime minister must win a parliamentary confidence vote before taking office.

However, the new constitution significantly enhances the authority of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The president must now choose a defense minister from among the military’s top officers. For the first two presidential election cycles, this choice must be approved by Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Moreover, the power to set the armed forces budget is granted to the National Defense Council and therefore beyond the scrutiny of the government. Finally, in a bid to undermine the Islamist elements that might threaten the status quo, the new constitution prevents parties from forming on the basis of religion, gender, race or geography, delivering a significant blow to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Post-revolution Egypt, as described by Professor Faris, is an example of Gramsci’s observation, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” The process of building a democracy takes time and patience. It would be too much to ask, as Fukuyama does, that the revolution immediately result in a liberal democracy. Rather, the democratic process, in whatever form it emerges, must be nurtured and allowed to develop over time. Professor Faris’s suggestions would have gone a long way in helping Egypt shed its past and cultivate whatever embers of the revolution that may still be burning. Unfortunately, the new constitution indicates that the old is going to die a slow death.


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Posted in Analysis

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