Nour Bakr
Last updated: 29 March, 2012

Comment: The importance of dialogue towards an Egyptian constitution

After a week in which relations with the U.S grabbed headlines, domestically great strides are being made towards laying the groundwork for the country’s future. However an Islamist dominated parliament and the lack of unity amongst Egypt’s other political forces have meant that these strides have been sideways rather than forward.

Egypt’s parliament has decided on the structure and make-up of the 100 member constituent assembly which will be in charge of drafting the constitution, however the assembly’s make-up is neither adequately representative nor accountable. Both the majority of selected members (parliamentarians and non-parliamentarians) and reserves are Islamists. Of the selected, 6 are women and another 6 are Copts, the two constitute around 50 and 10 percent of the country’s population respectively.

There goes an argument that as the parliamentary majority, the Islamists are entitled to such a dominant role. Whilst combined they did indeed gain over 50% of seats in the people’s assembly, this cannot be taken as a mandate to dictate the terms of the constitution in favour of their own political and ideological agendas. At this critical juncture for the country, it is vital that the assembly in charge of drafting the constitution includes better representation of Egypt’s minorities because thus far, the Salafis in particular have done little to suggest they are capable or willing to adjust to the tolerant politics necessary for democratic rule.

The now infamous incident in which a female electoral candidate for Al-Nour was represented on official campaign posters by her husband’s photo is a case in point. The Brotherhood for their part are much more pragmatic and thus responsive to political pressure, however the majority of this pressure is being applied from Salafists. The original 40/60 balance of parliamentarians to non-parliamentarians in the constituent assembly was swiftly increased to 50/50 after significant pressure from Nour party MPs who favoured 60% of the assembly being drawn from parliament.

In part, because of the strong Salafist presence in parliament, liberal voices are being drowned out and being made ineffectual. The withdrawal of liberal and minority MPs from the constituent assembly is thus an important step in attempting to force the hand of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary majority. Fatima Abouzeid, an FJP member of the constituent assembly, recently indicated that the party are aware of the problem of representation and are trying to solve it, however without sustained pressure from a united opposition this will be difficult.

That the Islamists, or any other political force, seek to mould the constitution to their own ideology is both inevitable and unavoidable. However the electoral successes of the most organised and stable parties in the context of high unemployment and rising food prices do not necessarily equal mass public support for a specific ideology. On the other hand, the electoral failings of non-Islamist parties have left them with scant power to influence political decisions of a parliamentary majority.

Accusations of attempting to subvert a democratic process have been thrown at those who resigned from the constituent assembly. However, the democratic nature of a parliament which includes a strong undemocratic contingent in the form of the Salafis is questionable. This does not mean that Egypt’s parliament is democratically illegitimate, just that in a fledgling atmosphere of political pluralism it can’t realistically represent a wide strata of Egyptian society.

Ideally, the constituent assembly should be reformed to include a greater representation of minorities and other political forces to provide a healthy and constructive counter-balance to the intolerant and undemocratic ideology of the Salafis. The Muslim Brotherhood, recognising that the democratic future of the country is at stake, must take the initiative where parliamentary minorities have insufficient power to do so.

At the same time, non-Islamists must recognise and respect the authority of a democratically elected parliament. Unrealistic expectations of a mathematically perfect representation of Egypt’s political sphere in the constituent assembly are unhelpful. Similarly calls for a transition to a national salvation government or an intervention by the military council will not be tolerated by a populace seeking stability nor will they aid in progressing forward with the task at hand.

It is critical that both sides are willing to compromise in order to achieve a true consensus of how the constituent assembly is formed. The Islamists must be willing to either decrease parliament’s representation in the assembly or decrease their presence amongst the 50% of non-parliamentarians. The former would entail moving to at least a 40/60 balance and the latter must include greater inclusion of the Human Rights advocates, lawyers and NGO workers, of which Egypt has many.

For their part, the smaller political forces must strive to create a concerted effort to pressure the parliamentary majority into taking the required steps, while recognising that the Islamists are a democratically elected force and at least one of the two have genuinely democratic intentions.