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Rubin Reports

On November 30, a Constituent Assembly consisting almost 100 percent of Islamists voted to approve the draft of Egypt’s new constitution. The next day, President Muhammad Mursi ordered that a referendum be held on December 15. In other words, Egypt’s population will be given two weeks to consider the main law, which has 230 articles, that will govern their lives for decades to come.

Most of the non-Islamists had walked out of the Assembly because they objected to the proposed constitution, and it seems as if the remaining opposition members did not even attend the vote. So great is the outrage that Egypt’s judges, who supervise elections and were explicitly asked by Mursi to oversee the forthcoming referendum, have refused to do so.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief spiritual guide, raved about how great the constitution is and then responded to the walk-out with a phrase that might serve as the slogan for the new democracy in Egypt and other Arabic-speaking countries:

You should not have withdrawn. It’s your right to express your opinions freely.

Yes, they could say what they thought and then be outvoted. Now that, indeed, is democracy. But what if you can already see that the democratic procedure will produce a dictatorial result? For example, Mursi was democratically elected president. He then issued a decree that said no court could countermand anything he decides. Isn’t that democratic, at least in the broader sense? Well, no it isn’t.

The competing street demonstrations of regime supporters and anti-Islamist oppositionists have now coalesced around two slogans. Pro-Islamists chant: “The people want the implementation of God’s law.” The opposition chants: “The people want to bring down the regime.”

But this time, unlike 2011, it is the regime that enjoys the support of the armed forces and Western governments, being buttressed also with almost $10 billion in aid. “The people” aren’t going to bring down this regime and the new rulers are going to implement their interpretation of “God’s law.” That is the new meaning of democracy in Egypt.

I draw here from the analysis in the Egypt Independent newspaper. (For a BBC comparison of this with the previous Egyptian constitution, see here. And here’s the full text.) Keep in mind that neither the West nor Mursi knows for sure what will happen to the parliament already elected. The Islamists have 75 percent of the seats in that body (Muslim Brotherhood, 50 percent; Salafist party, 25 percent), but the high court has ruled the lower house’s election to have been unconstitutional. If this decision stands, new elections will be necessary next year. In the presidential election, the Brotherhood’s vote was only 52 percent.

While this lower vote could be due to extraneous factors–the abstention of many Salafist supporters for partisan reasons; some Islamists preferring someone other than Mursi in the first round presidential balloting and not switching to support him in the second–Mursi doesn’t know how well the Brotherhood will do if there is a new parliamentary election. Consequently, he needs to find a way to either overrule the court’s decision (hence, his decree letting him overturn what the judges say) or prepare for rule with a parliament less favorable to the Brotherhood. Hence, the constitutional provisions creating a strong presidency are very much in his interest and frighten the non-Islamist opposition.

–Islamic Sharia law is the main source of Egypt’s laws. While this has been in previous constitutions, the problem is interpreting how strictly Sharia will be interpreted and how widely it will be applied. What that passage means for Egypt is going to be a lot more significant under a Muslim Brotherhood government with major input from even more radical Salafists than it was under President Husni Mubarak’s relatively secular-style regime.

–A basic principle of the Constitution (Article 4) is to consult al-Azhar, the country’s influential Islamic university, on any issue when Sharia is concerned, which potentially means on every issue. That elevates al-Azhar above all other non-governmental institutions. Al-Azhar is not (yet?) in Muslim Brotherhood hands but its leaders, who know which way the wind blows, can be expected to back a tough interpretation of Sharia law.

– To further ensure that Egypt will be a Sharia state, another provision (Article 219) states that the principles of Sharia are to be found in the four Sunni schools of thought, ruling out any reformist possibilities.

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