Reflections on constitutional reform

There is no doubt in my mind that today's announcement was a historically important one in Egypt's history. When you change a country's way of electing its topmost leader in such a fundamental way, the immediate effect does not matter, it's the principle that is important. What Hosni Mubarak has done is to significantly loosen the stranglehold that the ruling party had on who could even be a candidate in elections, and introduce the concept of contested presidential elections for the first time. Perhaps not as big a step as some might want or expect, but still an important step.

Now, that being said, is it enough? Probably not. First of all, the reform introduced today only deals with Article 76 of the 1971 constitution -- a constitution that many reformists have called to be scrapped altogether. It does not weaken the power of the institution of the presidency, nor does it meet the fairly radical standards demanded by parties such as Al Ghad. Until now it still remains unclear what is actually being proposed, but from what I've found out it would include the following:

  • The system will be changed from the current referendum on a single candidate nominated by parliament to a multi-candidate direct election by all eligible voters.
  • Candidates will have to undergo screening by parliament, as before. Each political party (there are 15 in Egypt, only about five of which can be considered serious, active parties) will be able to present its candidate.
  • In addition, independent candidates will be able to present themselves if they are endorsed by enough parliamentarians and local councilmen (there is still some confusion as to whether they would have to be endorsed by a party or not, but that does not make sense to me.) The precise number needed has not been discussed yet, but one can assume it will be greater than 16 -- the number of currently sitting "independent" MPs who are members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The justification is that the candidate's "respectability" has to be ensured.
  • The amendment will be drafted by the general committee of the People's Assembly on Monday and Tuesday, which will prepare an interim report that will be presented to the rest of parliament on March 12. The People's Assembly's legislative and constitutional committees will then discuss the issue and prepare an additional report, and the People's Assembly will then vote on it on May 12. Following that, there will be a national referendum to approve the amendment. The entire legislative process seems to be directed by Speaker of the Assembly Fathi Surour, who while an old regime hand is also a noted constitutional scholar.
  • The proposed amendment would also create a "higher committee" that would oversee the whole election process (presumably parliamentary as well as presidential, although I am not certain.)


  • Well that's it for the procedural aspect of it -- and I'm not a lawyer and this book, while often handy, is in this case less helpful than I thought it might be. But it did tell me that Egypt introduced its first constitution that was actually described as such (using the word "dostour") in 1923 -- before that there had only been a series of "organic laws." The 1923 constitution was suspended in 1930, when a rather totalitarian new constitution was introduced to much resistance. It was scrapped by royal decree in 1934, and the old 1923 constitution came back into effect. That one lasted until 1952, when the Free Officers abrogated it. A constitution was drafted in 1954 but was never made public after Nasser essentially led a coup against Egypt's first president, Muhammad Naguib. The first constitution of republican Egypt came into being in 1956, and was quickly followed by a new constitution in 1958 when the United Arab Republic came into effect bringing Syria and Egypt under a single government. After Syria withdrew, a temporary constitutional declaration came into effect (in 1962) and then in 1964 a new constitution was promulgated. It was replaced by the current 1971 constitution, which grants much power to the presidency, which has only been amended twice, in 1977 and 1980 (corrected.) All republican constitutions adopted a mixed presidential-parliamentary system.

    Now for the politics of it. People are interpreting this very differently on the ground here in Cairo. The official opposition seems to have embraced it unequivocally, often praising Mubarak in the process. The reaction from activists from movement such as Kefaya seem to be saying that a) it's not enough and b) reject that it comes from American pressure. Political scientists such Al Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies Director Abdel Moneim Said, who is close to Gamal Mubarak and the ruling National Democratic Party, say it was planned all along as part of the NDP's new platform (if so, they never mentioned anything about it.) Independent political analysts are being cautious, welcoming the step but saying that it will take more than constitutional reform to make Egypt democratic. They are also suspicious of the restrictions on independent candidates. I haven't heard of any reaction from the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Akef. Pro-American liberals say it's all thanks to Bush and the cancellation of Condoleeza Rice's trip.

    On that last point, there is something rather confusing. If Mubarak knew he was going to do this, why did he cancel the G8 meeting on democracy in Cairo that was going to take place next week and why did he not convince Rice to come anyway? Also, some people are saying he planned this in advance and this is why the only potentially serious rival candidate, Ayman Nour, was jailed.

    I think that US pressure definitely had a role in this, although I think the rising chorus of voices against Mubarak inside the country also had something to do with it. The truth is that no matter how much I dislike Bush, some of his Middle East policy does have positive effects in the region. (Actually I am much more opposed to Bush on his domestic policy than his foreign policy, but that's another matter.) This is one positive effect at first sight, but the question remains as to whether it's just yet another safety valve that will ensure regime survival. I haven't seen any statements yet, but it's likely the Bush administration will welcome this and perhaps might reward it (although the Nour issue will still have to be resolved.) This move gives Mubarak considerable international prestige as the first Arab leader to ever reduce his own power (correct me if I am wrong) but without giving up anything in reality if the political context remains the same.

    The question now is, if you are against Mubarak's re-election, what constitutes a serious candidate? So far we have Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Muhammad Farid Hassanein and Nawal Saadawi (and three others who are essentialyl nobodies). None of them are electable. I have an idea of who might be, but that's for another post.
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    Issandr El Amrani

    Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.