The constitution and the future of Egypt

I've been away for the last few days and missed Thursday's Kifaya demo and subsequent arrests. From Hossam's accounts, it appears pretty clear that the Mubarak regime is brooking no dissent as we head into the referendum period, to be followed by elections for the Shura Council and a spate of legislation that will be, as usual, hurried through parliament before summer recess (notably a new electoral law and the anti-terror law.) So we can expect see more of the same, and probably more arrests of activist-bloggers in the next few weeks.

As the walkout staged by opposition MPs shows, the current crisis over the constitution is perhaps one of the most serious in years. There are plenty of things that are dubious about the constitution, but the opposition has rallied around two major points: the amendments to articles 88 and 179, which respectively would reduce judicial supervision and cancel out constitutional protection of personal rights, giving police powers to search and conduct surveillance without warrants as well as detain prisoners without charging them. (I won't go into the details -- Gamal Essam Eddin covered them nicely in this story.)

In my opinion, there are two central things to keep in mind about the coming period. The first is whether the opposition can get its act together enough to either produce a "no" vote on the amendments (which of course could easily be changed into a "yes" by the authorities, if 2005's referendum is anything to go by) or whether it should call for a boycott of the referendum. Currently, the opposition is split about what to do, as it is on the question of whether MPs should resign in protest. It seems unlikely that the opposition would be able to mobilize voters against the amendments, particularly as the NDP is preparing a major campaign (of course using the state's resources as well as its own) for a "yes."

Some are beginning to predict that President Mubarak will dissolve parliament after the referendum (most probably later this year), a move that would meet considerable opposition from many NDP MPs who spent a lot of money getting their seats. A new election, under a new (probably list-based) electoral law would probably greatly reduce the number of Muslim Brotherhood MPs (and thus the overall number of opposition MPs, even if secular opposition parties make modest gains). The endgame of all these maneuvers -- ostensibly to consolidate power during the twilight years of Mubarak's rule -- is still uncertain. But Egypt's deepening authoritarianism is getting much attention. Here's a round-up of some recent stories:

Burying democracy further in Egypt - Amr Hamzawy and Dina Bishara on the escalation of the Mubarak regime against domestic opponents, especially the Muslim Brothers.

Crackdown by a clique - Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh denounces the recent crackdown on the MB and the constitutional amendments, saying:

Stability cannot be achieved by depriving social and political leaders of civil justice. Nor can it be achieved by resisting democracy and excluding the largest political force in the country from political life. By closing the doors to dialogue, the state is opening a door to chaos and extremism. The consequences will be severe, not only for Egypt but for the entire Middle East.
Can that be interpreted as a fear that younger members of the Ikhwan might choose a more violent route than the leadership? It's a point that is much debated around here.
More rights in Egypt, not fewer - NYT op-ed says "Washington should help independent groups organize in the event of such a vote. Dissenting voices are essential if there is to be any hope of free debate and democracy in Egypt." O NYT op-ed writer, are you aware that most independent groups in Egypt hate the US and its policies in the region? Or that such help would be automatically be labeled as foreign intervention? Rather than suggest interventionist solutions (i.e. ones that involve interfering in other countries' domestic affairs), how about lobbying for the severing of diplomatic relations or military aid programs or any other measures?

Imaging Otherwise in Cairo - Anthony Shadid traces the birth and death of the Kifaya movement. This is the first part. I'm not sure about his thesis, i.e. that Kifaya has died. Like many people, I think he fundamentally misunderestimates Kifaya's impact. Without Kifaya, much of the growing dissent taking place today would not be taking place. It was never going to bring down the regime -- only elements within the regime can do that. In the second part of the story, Shadid looks at the US backing away from pressuring Egypt. Again, I think he gets it wrong in exaggerating the role of US in creating that "Cairo Spring" of 2005 and in minimizing the prospects for political change (although not necessarily a transition to a Jeffersonian democracy) in the next few years. It is true that the opposition in Egypt suffers from the lack of clear leadership and political consensus, but it still early days. If there's one thing that's clear about Egypt today, it's that nothing is certain.
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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.