By Dr Mohamed Fouad
As the 50-member committee completed their work on the new constitution for Egypt – the second in less than two years, the document was met with mixed reviews. Amr Moussa, the chairman of the committee, asserted earlier this week that this is a constitution that responds to the requirements of the 21st century and that it is very clear on democracy and freedoms. Unsure what Moussa meant by the “requirements of the 21st century”, we ask here a more fundamental question: does the constitution matter?
The current constitution was largely commissioned in response to the previous constitution written under then President Mohamed Morsi. The 2012 version was viewed to have largely enhanced the role of Islamic law as well as curbed freedoms. We must however not forget that most of all previous Egyptian constitutions were built on the premise of separation of religion and state. Whilst they have differed in their socialist or capitalistic tendencies, some of them, notably the 1923 constitution, guaranteed human rights and freedoms.
The main thrust for the change that swept Egypt in the past 3 years was allegedly to bring about better living conditions; something which cannot be only accomplished by a constitution. The idea quickly degenerated into a struggle concerning the role of Religion in Egypt’s governance; perhaps an unspoken motive behind the change in the first place. The irony remains that a country which is struggling for basic needs has decided to waste few years redefining its identity at large. In this context, the raging identity debates seem superfluous; they are akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
While some articles were poorly written, notably the articles pegging expenditures such as healthcare and scientific research to the GDP, the proposed constitution achieved its objective by toning down the loud rhetoric that engrossed its predecessor. The current constitution also does not abhorrently conflict with establishing free market policies, which is what Egypt must maintain to achieve economic growth.
The proposed constitution, which will be soon presented for public approval, is largely expected to be ratified by popular vote. This vote of confidence, if obtained, will serve a dual purpose; it will in one aspect confirm the current constitution and will also serve as a ceremonial vote of confidence to the transition brought about by 30 June. In doing so, it will confirm that the past three years were nothing more but one big detour to reach the current moment.
It could be argued that the 1971 constitution compares favourably to the 2012 constitution as well as the current draft. We can also sit and argue whether this constitution meets the requirements of the 21st century or not; but it is all semantics at the end. Benjamin Franklin once said that: “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself”. The true test of a constitution remains in how it will be carried out and how it will yield improved freedoms and overall quality of life for its citizens. Egypt’s history offers virtually no guarantee that constitutional improvements, if any, will achieve these stated objectives.