The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

What would you do if you ran Egypt?

I remember about 10 years ago, a journalist was interviewing my boss at the time, the publisher and activist Hisham Kassem, and I walked into the office. Spinning off what must have been his usual epic rants against the Mubarak regime, Hisham turned to me and said: what would you do if you were president of Egypt? I first answered that as I am not Egyptian I don't have an opinion, and when he persisted mumbled back something about addressing rural poverty and illiteracy or somesuch. To be honest I had no idea what to answer.

Ten years later and the task of addressing Egypt's problems is as daunting as ever, but I am better informed about it. Lately I have been moaning about how poorly thought out Egypt's post-Mubarak transition has been — not just because of human rights abuses and such, but conceptually. The recent news that the SCAF is pushing for a quick transition — a new constitution by April, presidential elections in June — is more evidence of this, whether it's on purpose and simply because of the lack of leadership the political class and SCAF have shown. And I have been asking myself, how would I go about it different, from right now (no need to cry over the milk spilt since 11 February 2011).

As much as I hate giving this kind of advice, still feel very poorly equipped to do so, and don't like, as a foreigner, giving Egyptians suggestions about what to do with their country, here's a rough outline how I'd proceed. Needness to say, I don't think things will develop this way.

  • First, because the transition has gone so badly thus far, there is still a need for a real, thought-out, deep transition period. It is a terrible idea to just rush into a new constitution in just a month (which is what the next parliament will have, more or less, although proposals for various constitutions are already underway). This is the central idea of my proposal.
  • Nonetheless, the SCAF is pushing ahead for a new constitution by April, as a prelude for the election of a new president. This new constitution should be an interim document, setting the basic balance of power between institutions.
  • This interim constitution will set the rules for the coming, real, transition period of two years. During this two years, parliament, the president, and the judiciary will work together on a number major dossiers.
  • The first major dossier is the elaboration, over a two-year period, of a permanent constitution. The constituent assembly could continue that task, or another appointed committee could do it. The new constitution will not simply be an adaptation of the previous constitution of 1971, or a return to the "lost" constitution of 1954 or the historically important constitution of 1923. A public debate will be encouraged, using broadcast media and a public awareness campaign (call it "dostorna" — our constitution) to encourage participation, over the content of the next constitution. It will be a basic document that contains fundamental principles of citizenship. Issues such as the role of Sharia, whether family law should be according to one religion as it has been thus far, the role of the military, the nature of the political system (parliamentary or presidential) and other matters will be open to debate. Importantly, the new constitution will not repeat among the worst mistakes of previous texts: a reference to external laws that flesh out its rules. It will address fundamental rights only, which cannot be modulated or changed by external laws.
  • In parallel, parliament and a body from the judiciary such as the Supreme Council of the Judiciary will undertake a thoroug review of Egypt's legislation. It will seek out liberticide laws and either abrogate them or amend them. Where there is legal confusion among multiple laws, it will definitely resolve the matters. Old laws that are no longer relevant will be purged.
  • The cabinet and all ministries will carry out a full review of executive regulations and other rules under which they operate, submitting them to a parliamentary committee for approval. The aim will be to clarify and simplify the accumulation of regulations, increasingly transparency in the public bureaucracy, and making that bureaucracy's interaction with citizens smoother.
  • Parliament will work to draft a new civil service law that will supersede all previous regulations governing Egypt's seven million civil servants, incorporating recently endorsed ideas such as minimum and maximum wages, but also simplifying salary scales across the civil service and outlining a strategy for the upgrade of facilities, training of personnel, and a longer-term plan to reduce the number of state employees through early retirement schemes and other means.
  • Relevant ministries and the presidency will draft an emergency economic plan for the two-year transition period, setting out a fiscal policy based on a combination higher foreign borrowing, collaboration with international financial institutions and partner countries. The plan will focus on beginning to address structural problems in the Egyptian economy by investing in public works projects to generate unemployment in the short term in areas that can deliver long-term economic and social benefits: transport, irrigation, health services, etc. It will include a plan to boost tourism, address the imbalances created by fuel subsidies and implement (or adapt) plans for a subsidy card that had begun under the Nazif government.
  • A new electoral law will be drafted that will scrap the current system and replace it by a simpler one, with elections held on a single day. Direct judicial supervision will be phased out and replaced by an independent electoral commission (partially drawn from retired judges, civil society and political appointees) with a budget to oversee the entire electoral process. Its members will be full-time, supplemented by a permanent secretariat. This commission, rather than the Ministry of Interior, will be in charge of drawing electoral boundaries.
  • A transitional justice commission will be created to account for major crimes carried out by the Mubarak regime. Its primary task will be to draw up a reform plan for the interior ministry, compensate its past victims, and promote a culture of human rights and accountability.
  • CAPMAS and the General Accountability Office will be reformed to publish timely and public reports on government spending for all government departments, both in print and in an easily accessible website.
  • Parliament will work to overhaul its own working, with the creation of internal research organs (modeled, for instance, on the Congressional Research Service) capable of addressing transitional and other issues, adequate salaries for parliamentarians and staff, and an ethics committee. The upper house of parliament would be abolished or reformed to both have more power and a different purpose than the lower house.
  • Municipal councils would be reformed to have more direct power in the areas they oversee, with the power of governors (who should eventually be elected or drawn from a meritocratic senior civil service in the French model) comparatively weakened. The devolution project started under the Nazif government would be seriously contemplated.
  • After the two year transition period, the new constitution will be approved by popular referendum, triggering new general elections — at all levels.

I could provide more details, but the point is that I have, generally speaking, seen little that goes in this direction. It's not just policies that need to change, it is the structure of the state itself. I see few people addressing that today.