The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

"Clamor for a constitution"

Mona el-Ghobashy has a new MERIP piece which follows on the thread of her previous MERIP article (in the print version) about the growing constitutionalist movement in Egypt. Mona is an extremely learned and passionate advocate of reform in Egypt, and she has a particular knack for finding parallels between historic events (especially during Egypt's "liberal age") and the current situation. I think her piece tackles some of the arguments (including on this site) that the opposition is pushing for too much too fast and risking a backlash (well, perhaps the backlash is happening now.)

An excerpt, from the end:

Lectured for decades on the imperatives of delaying democracy, Egyptians today are being sent an updated version of the same message. Instead of young modernizing officers in khakis bent on reforming the rottenness of palace politics in 1952, today it is “young” modernizing technophiles in trim suits telling Egyptians to wait until the economy is liberalized and the population is safely democratic before embarking on any political experiments. Yet it appears that citizens will have no further truck with dilatory arguments. Pollster Gamal Abd al-Gawad of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies reports that an April 2004 survey of 2,400 Egyptians aged 15-24 found that 63.3 percent believe democracy is a good form of government, compared to 24.5 percent who think it is inappropriate for some peoples and 12.3 percent who think it is a poor form of government.

On the popular level, participatory politics is alive and inching forward, particularly in the new phenomenon of consumer protection organizations resisting the rapid privatization of public services and arbitrary imposition of outlandish service fees. Two cases in point are the Popular Association for the Protection of the Citizen from Taxes and Corruption, headed by veteran activists Muhammad al-Ashqar and Karima al-Hefnawy, and the Citizens’ Rights Committee headed by journalists Farida al-Shubashi and Ahmad Taha. Cyber-activists have created new forums trafficking in everything from political jokes and rumors to a dizzying array of petition drives, consumer boycott initiatives and alternative constitutional models.

Activists are unearthing a persistent constitutionalist tradition in Egyptian history against an equally powerful presidential inheritance. “Giving Egyptians the right to choose their president will itself change citizens’ ideas about the domineering institution of the presidency, regardless of the occupant,” says opposition parliamentarian Hamdeen Sabahy. While Egyptians have long sanctified or loathed the persons of their presidents, it is only during Mubarak’s tenure that specific demands to trim presidential powers have migrated from the pages of law journals into everyday conversation. The next few years in Egyptian politics will witness contests between the two traditions and two logics: the logic of political deferral at the level of government and the logic of political movement at the level of society.

Egypt’s rulers have always feared and loathed popular constitutionalism. Exasperated by contentious Egyptian students in 1908, Lord Cromer’s successor Sir Eldon Gorst sniffed, “During the last few months, they have assiduously seized every opportunity in season and out of season to clamor for a constitution, and if their methods of procedure have not had any effect in advancing the cause which they have at heart, they have at any rate added to the labors of the Cairo police in keeping order in the streets.”

Read it all.