The word “supra” is Latin for “above” and is used in the English language to mean “outside of,” “beyond the limits of,” or “greater than.” The word “constitution” refers to a set of principles according to which a state is governed. This was pretty easy to find, but unfortunately dictionaries do not usually provide definitions of two-word mergers unless the outcome is a meaningful third as in the case of zillions of prefixed expressions. Hence, every dictionary has en entry for “extraordinary,” “supernatural,” “antisocial,” “counterrevolution,” and “malformation” but in none will there be a trace of “supra-constitution.” Of course it’s not that hard to guess the literal meaning of those two words combined, yet it is quite impossible to arrive at the meaning implied by their suspicious union. The constitution is supposed to be the highest form of statutes in a given democracy and, therefore, envisioning a document endowed with more supremacy becomes quite far-fetched; trying to figure out the reason for attempting to devise such a document that does not, by definition, make any sense turns out to be quite mind-boggling.
To be honest, I have to admit that I actually heard the expression “supra-constitutional” before in reference to international human rights laws, which are believed to transcend the constitutions of countries. This basically meant that conventions stating the basic rights any human being should be granted regardless of which country he/she comes from should be endowed with a higher status than individual constitutions and which might focus on issues mostly pertaining to this specific country. So, if your country's constitution in does not explicitly mention that you are, for example, entitled to a dignified treatment regardless of race, religion, or class, you are not deprived of this right since by virtue of being human you fall under the jurisdiction of international treaties presumably created for safeguarding this species. Whether this really provides you with any kind of protection and whether the country you come from finds its own constitution binding to start with is not of great help as far as trying to find a meaning for “supra-constitution” is concerned.
The above-mentioned definition presents the “supra-constitution” as a noble attempt to create a universal shelter for all the inhabitants of the planet and to place human rights above all border-bound constitutions and politically-oriented laws. Not exactly realistic, but definitely commonsensical. Any sane person, and I claim to be one, would perfectly understand the rationale behind such a holistic approach to humanity, but would miserably fail to fathom how one single country can have two constitutions—one “supra” and another “infra.” Actually, the latter does not even exist and only God knows when and if it will see the light.
Like the birth of freaks is accompanied by turbulent acts of nature, several paranormal incidents heralded the inception of the “supra-constitution.” It all started with the referendum on a bunch of constitutional amendments, the most important of which concerned the writing of the constitution. According to the new article, which was approved together with the entire bouquet—people said “yes” or “no” to all the amendments and not to one by one—the constitution is to be written by a committee of 100 parliament members to be elected also by parliament members. The question that popped up right there and then was: What members? Which parliament? We didn’t have the second, so logically the first was nowhere to be found. But came the answer: The new elected parliament. So the elections will take place without a constitution? Indeed. Aren’t a couple of amendments enough to walk the country through something as minor as parliamentary elections? Of course they are.
And Egypt, thereby, welcomed the Constitutional Declaration, the name given to the document approved by 77 percent of the voters. Let me point out that the referendum was on nine articles, but we were so good to be rewarded with 63. Let me also point out that the outcome of the vote was the fruit of a relentless campaign launched by Islamists in which average people were brainwashed into believing that disapproving of the amendments would mean writing a constitution from scratch and therefore removing Article 2 that makes Islam the official religion and Islamic law the main source of legislation, which will of course be immediately followed by canceling Islam from Egypt and forcing Egyptians to convert to Buddhism and imposing fines on citizens who abstain from eating pork! It never occurred to the 14-plus million who said “yes” that Islamists wanted to make sure they stand the biggest chance of forming this committee and were counting on administering an intensive Islam-is-under-attack dose that would certainly win them a parliamentary majority. At that time I asked myself a simple question: If using religious slogans is illegal in elections, shouldn’t the same apply to referenda? Apparently not! Somebody wanted those who said “no” to religious manipulation and who saw no alternative to a civil state to cower in fright as they see the specter of a theocracy looming in the horizon and cry out for help. I went crazy trying to guess who!
Well, that kind of worked. The Constitution First campaign betrayed a great deal of nervousness on the part of liberals who looked to have suddenly realized that their chances of taking part in writing the constitution were diminishing by the minute. It was then that they insisted the constitution be drafted before the elections by a committee that includes all sectors and classes in the Egyptian society. Too late, Islamists scoffed as they accused their opponents of revoking the results of a democratic process in which the people chose how they want the constitution to be written. I can’t blame them. I would have never missed such an easy and logical — quite a rare combination—chance for the whole world and I would have definitely flashed the democracy card in their faces and maybe even stuck my tongue at them.
It looked like a dead end. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces could not just cancel the result of the referendum at the time it claimed to be the sole guardian of the Egyptian revolution and the heroic advocate of democracy, but it could still take into its arms those scared children and rock them to sleep with a little lullaby: “Close your eyes and have no fear. The monster’s gone; he’s on the run, and mommy’s here!” Another little document can do the job. It’s pretty simple. Let’s just tamper with one little article in the Constitutional Declaration and make a tiny change in the number of its members from the parliament so instead of 100 they will only drop to 20. The remaining 80 will be chosen to cover the whole spectrum of the Egyptian society through including representatives of 20 different sectors like the judiciary, university professors, trade unions, businessmen, farmers, Muslim and Christian clergy, and guess who? The Armed Forces. Who chooses those representatives? Too much guessing I suppose!
But this violates the provisional constitution and breaks the rules according to which the permanent constitution will be written and disregards the referendum about the constitution. What has this gotten to do with that anyway? This is a “supra-constitution” and this is how we might arrive at a potential definition. A “supra-constitution” is a document where you add articles that are not in the constitution and twist or annul or reinterpret articles that are in the constitution and, by virtue of being “above” the constitution, it is not subject to referenda and such trivial processes that only make people fight. It can also contain some articles about human dignity, freedom of expression, faith, and movement, the protection of individual property, the right to a clean environment and a proper education and similar principles that make the document look as “supra-constitutional” as human rights organizations meant when they started using the term and that should make us the one self-sufficient country in which any universal statute is rendered absolutely unnecessary.
It will also contain the price, the terms of the allegiance you will forever pledge to the makers of the “supra-constitution” for allaying your fears and appeasing the likes of you who dread the day Egypt will be an Islamic state: The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces is untouchable. You have the right to form a civil state, but you will forever remember that your loyalty stays with the army; you have the freedom to file lawsuits and protest corruption and promote democracy, but are absolutely prohibited from looking into issues related to army including the budget, which is to feature as one entry and one single digit in the state budget, and any legislation related to the army. The civil president needs to take the approval of the military council before declaring war. The council also becomes authorized to form a new committee to draft the constitution in case the first one fails to do so or in case the constitution it comes up with violates the Constitutional Declaration which the council is violating at this very moment … Oops! Forgot the “supra-constitution” is entitled to violate as it may. Sorry, I and my stupid fellow-Egyptians will need some training on that!
I remember one time our beloved bygone president once gave the Egyptian people the choice between his regime and chaos, the latter always used to denote Islamist rule. Now our beloved seemingly-never-to-be-bygone army is giving us the choice between full military control and the same kind of chaos.
I guess now I understand what or who “supra” refers to and I am sure I have absolutely no clue what “constitution” is supposed to mean.
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., of Al Arabiya also teaches English Literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)