The Islamist majority in the Egyptian parliament appears to have badly overplayed its hand with its attempt to rush the formation of the constituent assembly and impose a majority of its own pre-selected candidates without negotiation. Liberal, secular, labour and other representatives (including those of the Coptic Church, Al Azhar and the Supreme Constitutional court) have withdrawn from the assembly, and negotiations to convince them to come back have been unfruitful. The assembly's legitimacy is so tarnished (and its collection of members so arbitrary, unrepresentative, and in some cases undistinguished) that it really would probably be better to start over.
As the negotiations drag on, AUC professor, Marxist activist and advisor to moderate Islamist presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh Rabab El-Mahdi makes some good common-sense points to those critial of the Islamist-selected assembly about what they should be focusing on now, and the importance of process over names. The following is my own abridged (and imperfect) translation from a recent column in El Shorouk newspaper:
Ever since parliament began forming the constituent assembly more than two weeks ago, the battle over the constitution has returned to dominate the political scene -- before our attention returns to the presidential race once again. And despite the fact that this important, historic contest should concern the entire Egyptian people, whose social relations and relations with the nation will be shaped by this constitution, what’s deplorable is that this contest has turned into a battle between those who are called -- mistakenly -- the “madani [”civil” commonly meaning “secular” in Egypt today] forces” (liberals, nationalists and leftists) and the political Islam current or “the Islamists.” And as members began withdrawing from the the assembly, activists started to criticize the absence of this well-known emigré doctor and that dean of a college in Canada, as if the criteria for belonging to the assembly were distinction in one’s professional field; they mentioned particular names, as if those people’s presence in the assembly were the issue. The majority party presented a list clarifying the percentage of “Islamists” and “non-Islamists” and mentioning the names of Christians as if this were a sectarian battle [...]. And the name of women were mentioned not on the basis of who or what they represent but on the basis of their gender. Meanwhile some others resort to the army to annul the assembly and issue a constitutional declaration on this matter at a time when the parliamentary majority is fortified by its numerical power. And everyone forgets that conducting the battle this way will not bestow a better constitution upon us but rather will entrench a sectarian nation and military rule. Following are a few observations that have been absent from this contest.
Also check out our previous translation of parliamentarian Ziad Baha' El-Din account of how the selection of the constituent assembly took place. And blogger Zenobia's breakdown of the members (including funny instances of outright nepotism, i.e. young relatives of Muslim Brotherhood leaders being selected as "youth representatives.").
The rest El-Mahdy's column follows.
First of all the battle is not over the names or religion of members but over the absence of transparent and agreed-upon criteria according to which participants can be chosen. For example the use of the term “public personality” without any criteria or even definition for “public personality” opens the door to personal inclinations and estimations. Whereas the standards should be clear and transparent so that people trust the choices, whatever the names may be.
Secondly, there is a difference between competing, agreeing and negotiating. Competition and agreement are two completely different mechanisms of decision-making and each is best in a given situation: Elections for example cannot take place without competition and settling votes, whereas writing a constitution must take place through negotiation and agreement, which is not happening. What’s important isn’t the numbers of each political current in the assembly but the way decisions are taken. [Which should be] in a purely procedural manner -- the consultation and coordination that took place between the two biggest parties (Freedom and Justice and El Nour) should have included representatives of the other parties and independents in parliament, rather than them being surprised by a list [of candidates] decided upon by the majority. Claiming the power of numbers in this case is what opened the door -- which still remains ajar -- to allow the entry of a repressive unelected power to settle the dispute, as we saw in the meeting of the Field Marshall with the political parties.
Thirdly, representation in the constituent assembly isn’t political representation but rather social representation and therefore the struggle must turn from the idea of minority and majority and different ideologies to thinking about the participation of representatives from all social groups including professionals, workers and farmer, using mechanisms that guarantee the widest social dialogue. The process of shaping and guaranteeing [the constitution] is a technical process for experts, but the content should be provided by all Egyptians.
Fourthly, the political and social forces who disagree with the formation of the assembly -- and I’m among them -- should stop suggesting alternate names and numbers and should try to crystalize, alongside the rest of Egyptians, the demands and rights to be included in the constitution. Those concerned with women’s rights and feminist groups for example should stick to formulating, through wide social participation, the rights they want, rather than suggesting particular names.