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Egypt's Rulers Are About to Make the Same Mistake Morsi Did

Seeds of Discontent in a New Constitution

Are Egypt’s current rulers making the same mistake as their Muslim Brotherhood predecessors of pushing through a constitution that will alienate their allies and agitate their opponents? A committee of ten judges and law professors have drafted a document that reflects the priorities of the deep state but offers far less to others.

There are already some signs that those who dare not criticize the military generals and police officers can fearlessly turn their guns on the new constitution. The new regime will almost surely survive the struggle, but the coalition that supported its seizure of power may begin to fray under the pressure.

On Sunday, the jurists finally delivered their “amendments” to the 2013 constitution to the president—a set of recommended changes so extensive that they amount to a new constitution. While they worked in secret, a week earlier an earlier version of their draft had leaked, setting off a cascade of criticisms from a variety of political actors, most of whom made the blind men of Hindustan seem farsighted.

From within the state, of course, certain actors were protected and left with little about which to complain. The military received its cherished exemption from civilian oversight, chiefly through a national defense council with a military majority, a requirement that the minister of defense be drawn from its ranks and subject to its approval, and a budget that is to be approved by the parliament as a lump sum. The security services were largely unaddressed and would likely find it easy to continue to operate outside of any legal channels, as they have for a couple generations. Indeed, since the police are to be headed (symbolically but portentously) by the president, they may be effectively immune from parliamentary oversight. Judges—anyone reading the proposed amendments is not likely to be able to forget that there was a judicial majority on the committee—received not only a substantial degree of autonomy but also the authority to veto judicial legislation they dislike. Existing unions were guaranteed continued monopoly in their sphere of representation.

But the less sensitive parts of the Egyptian state—what I have referred to elsewhere as the “wide state” as opposed to the “deep state,” many of which had lobbied furiously to gain recognition in the 2012 constitution, were frozen out of the drafting and found many of their favorite clauses on the cutting room floor.

What is striking is not simply their complaints but the tone of moral outrage they have brought to apparently dry matters. Take, for instance, Egypt’s state accountants. The words they fought for in 2012—that the State Auditing Organization “has control over state funds and any other body specified by law” are proving to be less than immortal. The entire article containing them has been slated for removal by the jurists. As the accountants tell the story, the bitter battle with the Muslim Brotherhood drafters of the constitution less than a year ago now has to be refought. They have pledged to fight it with all legitimate means at its disposal. Personnel from across the state apparatus—the state medical examiner and court personnel responsible for supplying expert evaluation and advice, for instance—are similarly outraged victims of the emendation process.

Yet it was not only state actors who were unpleasantly surprised. Members of the journalist’s association, child welfare advocates, human rights activists, and others have poked around the fine print and found that their requests for specific wording have been ignored. Some revolutionary groups have noticed that all references to the 2011 revolution have been removed—as has the political ban on some figures from the Mubarak era. Political party leaders—every bit as focused (and myopic) as bureaucratic actors—have zeroed in on the system for parliamentary elections in the anticipated 2014 balloting. Party lists are to be abandoned for that election (they are not barred in subsequent years); Egypt’s parliamentarians are to be elected as individuals in their local constituencies. And party leaders have reacted as one would expect—by calculating their chances in the new system. Those who anticipate losing seats have worked to turn the matter into a moral issue.

Not all political objections were focused on such specific interests. Salafis have more principled objections—though their principles are very controversial ones in Egypt. All the provisions that they worked so hard to insert in 2012—to guarantee not simply the symbolic role for Islam but also practical steps to bring Islamic legal strictures into practical effect—have been surgically removed. And while their claim that the Islamic character of the state is being challenged is hyperbolic (this is hardly a secular constitution being proposed, after all), at least their critique is based on more than singling out a particular clause.

Will all this bellyaching have any political effect? It will not bring down the new regime, but it may cause problems in three ways.

First, in an environment where the guiding hand of the state and frenzied public opinion have suddenly clamped down on what had been a wide-ranging public debate, the criticisms of the draft have introduced a note of discord and controversy. Few people have openly questioned the very questionable process but they have been nibbling away at the legitimacy of the result.

Second, selected critics will soon have their say. President Adli Mansour is supposed to appoint a committee of 50 officials, civil society leaders, and politicians to review the proposals. The committee is skewed heavily against Islamists and mildly toward official actors; its precise mandate remains a bit murky. But, nonetheless, the constitution will soon be subject to nitpicking. It is difficult to envision such this new (quite diverse) committee producing either a set of agreed-upon changes or a consensus supporting the existing draft; instead, it is likely to provoke a set of minor changes and a major amount of grumbling.

Third, the proposals—modified or not—will then be presented to Egyptian voters. Of course, if it wishes, the new regime may be able to round up the usual suspect majority to approve the amendments. Even without the state apparatus swinging in support of the referendum, approval is likely. But it is not guaranteed if the balloting is fair. Although the Islamists are on the defensive and likely bereft of the Muslim Brotherhood’s mobilizing skills, they might still be able to turn out considerable crowds. If other key constituencies are alienated, the outcome is hardly assured. And Egypt’s rulers have no apparent Plan B if the draft is rejected.

More likely, though, is a constitution that becomes the law of the land despite bad feelings. That is, after all, what happened in December 2012, the last time Egyptians went through such a process (then under Brotherhood tutelage). This time, key institutions of the Egyptian state—and certainly its most authoritarian faces—are likely to smile kindly on the document rather than subvert it.

The result will be a contentious, unruly semi-authoritarian system with some democratic elements but little ability to take a firm policy direction in some areas (most critically the economy). Egypt might look politically a bit like Turkey or some Latin American countries in the 1970s and 1980s, and economically it may be every bit adrift as it was in the early Mubarak years. It is hard to believe that is what Egyptians wanted when they poured out into the streets in January of 2011 and June of 2013.

Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is author of When Victory is Not an Option: Islamists Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell, 2012).