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Egypt Officially Declares What Is and Isn't Important

Three things that the interim president's constitutional declaration makes clear

Getty/Spencer Platt

Interim Egyptian President Adli Mansour on Monday did his fellow citizens a huge favor by issuing his “constitutional declaration,” which is designed to do two things. First, with the country’s 2012 constitution suspended until it can be amended, the declaration is supposed to provide a bare-bones constitutional framework. Second, it spells out the rules by which the 2012 constitution can be amended, and elections for parliament and president restored.

If experience is any guide—and it should be, because Egypt’s 2013 transition plan bears many of the hallmarks of its last one—Mansour’s declaration will set off more political battles than it will resolve. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood has already rejected the timetable. But the document does make three things much clearer than before:

Whatever else it was, it was a coup

The State Department lawyers who have been toiling over whether President Mohamed Morsi's removal was a coup can now desist. Mansour’s declaration puts it in black and white—at least for those who can read right to left. In the preamble, he is explicit: His authority flows from a short statement orally delivered by General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi on July 3. That statement—which the bashful general was too modest even to label as a “communiqué,” much less an exalted “constitutional declaration”—is cited by Mansour as the primary basis for his own authority. And just for good measure, al-Sisi’s words have been written up and placed in the country’s Official Gazette in order to make clear that they are quite literally the ultimate law of the land. 

What to save in a fire

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes fooled Irene Adler into revealing her secret hiding place by faking a fire and then watching where she went to rescue what she valued. The confusion after Morsi's ouster worked the same trick on Egypt’s new rulers. Forced to come up with a bare-bones interim document on the fly, they could only insert the clauses that really mattered. Rights provisions, hortatory about family values, dry legalese about various state bodies, and even the entire legislative process were cut. But certain provisions were considered essential—like those that the military had inserted in the 2012 constitution that shielded the institution from civilian oversight. The judiciary got its favorite provisions as well. And what did the Salafi party al-Nour get for backing the coup, thereby removing critical support from the Brotherhood and ensuring that the revolution (and yes, it was a revolution too) was not simply Islamists vs. non-Islamists? Their favorite article, a complicated formula designed to ensure that the pledge to follow the Islamic Sharia was not a mere platitude, was saved as well.

Is it structure or agency?

Political scientists often ask whether the best explanation for an event lies with structure or the actors—is it the rules of the game or the people who play it that matter?

I have a friendly and irresolvable debate with Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation. Yes, I say, the Brotherhood made all sorts of mistakes (as did everybody else), but ultimately Egypt’s political troubles since the Arab Spring uprising are the result of a series of bad decisions and design errors made back in early 2011. Mike concedes those mistakes, but ultimately, blames Morsi. We may soon find out who's right, because Egyptians are about to play a similar game by similar rules—but without a key player. Mansour's declaration ensures that almost all the mistakes of 2011 will be repeated (structure) but this time the Brotherhood (actors) will not be there.

What mistakes are being repeated? Start with a constitutional declaration written in secret and dropped on a population that, still basking in post-revolutionary goodwill, is not reading the fine print. Then add a considerable measure of vagueness, an extremely rushed timetable, critical gaps and loopholes, and a promise that everyone gets a seat at a table but not much of a guarantee that anybody listens to what is said at that table: The generals are clearly calling the shots for the short term, but there's just enough opacity, and a dose of influence for civilian officials and politicians, that it's not clear where the real responsibility lies. Reward those who cut deals with the military or security apparatus, but also allow those who missed out on cutting a deal to decry the very idea of such deals. Add in measures of repression, xenophobia, media restrictions and harassment, and the postponement of all reform questions. Use state media in a blatantly partisan way. And subject Egyptians to a rapid series of elections so that, as soon as they're done with one round of balloting, they are called to vote on the next.

Not everything is the same in the 2013 edition of Egypt’s bungled transition. The sequence (constitutional amendments, parliamentary elections, presidential elections) seems the same, but the pace seems even faster. There are inexplicable innovations, like having lawyers draft amendments to present to political leaders; one would normally hammer out the political deal and then show it to the lawyers to write up. (The likely explanation? The real political deals are being made right now behind closed doors. We could soon know something about those talks, since if those deals don’t work, the doors may blow open.) The biggest difference so far seems to be the effort to remove the Brotherhood by any means necessary (sometimes just handing the leaders a shovel is enough to ensure they’ll find themselves in a hole).

Perhaps this experiment is not fair for my friend Mike, since I think he would agree that the procedural flaws are such that it would take a remarkably virtuous and agreeable set of actors to make it work. Virtue and amiability will be in very short supply in a political environment in which political opponents call each other (and sometimes treat each other as) fascists, terrorists, apostates, traitors, and violent beasts. Which brings me back to my view that we shouldn't look for individual villains, easy as they are to find: Egypt’s politics probably will not improve as long as political rivals are mortal enemies. At this point, the only thing Egyptians have to blame is blame itself.