Last Updated: Tue Nov 29, 2011 13:18 pm (KSA) 10:18 am (GMT)

Eman El-Shenawi: Egypt’s elections jumped the constitution queue

The Egyptian constitution will be drawn up after a parliament is elected, but is this the most logical way to go about the country’s post-revolutionary politics?
The Egyptian constitution will be drawn up after a parliament is elected, but is this the most logical way to go about the country’s post-revolutionary politics?

While the scenes of thousands of Egyptians queuing up at the ballot boxes appear to be encouraging, I still feel a pang of doubt. Something’s missing.

A few months ago, Egypt’s military rulers and political forces pondered over an important dilemma: to go ahead with the post-revolutionary parliamentary vote, or to pace the electoral timetable, making way for a new constitution to be drawn up.

The latter was dismissed and Egyptians have found themselves going to the polls this week to elect 498 members of the People’s Assembly − the lower house of parliament – who will form a constituent assembly tasked with drafting the new constitution. But for this stage to be fully drawn out, a lot is reliant on the anticipated constitution. For instance, if you find yourself questioning how long this new assembly will be in office, well, it’s yet to be decided. The length of their term will be dependent on the new constitution.

This begs an obvious question: shouldn’t the average Egyptian know how long the new bunch will be allowed to last in office before they vote?

Indeed, this example is only a mild worry, but it’s a good indicator of a step being well and truly skipped. Have Egypt’s parliamentary elections jumped the queue?

It is known that the rules of any game shape the end result; otherwise the game appears rough around the edges and plagued with loopholes. Surely logic and reason should be a part of the new Egypt, a country which saw Hosni Mubarak’s regime crumble largely owing to ambiguous policies and vague decision-making, which fed into the corruption wheel. Would writing up a constitution to create and protect the rule of law before the elections have made the most sense? Perhaps. And particularly as a new constitution is likely to change the political system significantly enough to require new parliamentary and presidential elections to take place within as little as a year.

The political implications for a constitution to be drawn up before elections would have also been laden with liberal and leftist support. Such parties (mostly anti-Islamist and against the Muslim Brotherhood) know that the rules of the constitution will dictate who will retain power. Liberals had been the most eager for the constitution to be drawn up before the elections, particularly as the Brotherhood is expected to be elected as the biggest parliamentary group, who would in turn, have a large say in shaping the constitution.

In the run-up to the elections, an initiative by a prominent law center had been launched to promote citizen participation in drafting a constitution under the slogan “Let’s Write Our Constitution.” Meanwhile presidential hopeful Mohammed ElBaradei had also proposed a 17-article bill of rights that would exclude the military from the formal political process and guarantee citizens’ fundamental rights, U.S.-based political commentator Michele Dunne noted. But such initiatives weren’t largely accepted by the Egyptian general public.

Pre-elections, the constitution would have been drawn up by Egypt’s current transitional rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), although some argue that this would have been messy too, and the mess lies in the “transitional” part. SCAF would have attempted to find moderate proportional representations of Egypt’s parties, movements and legal thinkers to piece together a constitution to replace the provisional constitution they had put in place in March. This may have worked, despite onlookers who say this would have led to several million-man marches and the sort by the Brotherhood & Co. But we saw such marches last week anyway, albeit for a different reason (a wave of anti-SCAF sentiment and protests demanding they transfer power to civilian rule), but we still saw them.

We saw blood too.

Good leadership will be the only way to pin down a successful liberal democracy in Egypt, even the most perfect constitution will not be able to do that. But the constitution and the elections are part of that search for democracy and freedom from autocratic rule; Egypt should move away from the ambiguity of autocracy and be lead in a more clear-cut fashion. Almost every Egyptian knows that if you ask a general crowd what they would have preferred the circumstances surrounding the elections to be, you will receive a jumbled assortment of answers, generally starting with “If I was in charge of the country, I would have…”

Despite the arguments that support a constitution to be formed after the elections, which include “let’s get Egypt out of this transitional phase,” an Egyptian colleague told me today, common sense should have lead the way.

Play the game by the rules, or the game may not play out well.

(Eman El-Shenawi is a writer at Al Arabiya English)

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