Egyptian Constitution Threatens Progress, But Can't Stop It

Without a strong sense of consensus surrounding the country’s new constitution, Egypt faces a real danger of failing to build a solid legal foundation in the country’s transition period, or even one that improves over the 1971 Constitution. A second revolution, though it will likely not occur in the streets, may take the form of unexpected electoral success for the country’s liberal parties, and lead to substantial changes in the law.

Last December, Egypt’s controversial constitution was passed via a popular referendum that sent around 30% of Egyptians to the polls. But the lack of consensus over the content of this new document as well as the drafting process has left many Egyptians in doubt whether the ideals of the revolution have been codified into the law. With some charging that the constitution was rushed to completion in order to avoid a legal battle, Egypt’s leaders have put in place a document that not only fails to unite the country’s divided populace but could threaten to undermine what progress has been made since protesters took to the streets in January 2011.

For many, the pivotal moment in Egypt’s transition took the form of a debate that has occurred among the country’s North African neighbors as well, which comes first the Constitution or the Parliament? While Tunisia chose to focus on drafting a Constitution before holding elections, a route favored by Egypt’s liberal blocs and one that relies mainly on technocrats to lay down the legal principles that will guide the country’s government, the majority of Egyptians elected to push the elections forward. It was at this moment that began the unprecedented rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and their subsequent domination of the constitution-drafting process.

Today, the fallout from that decision and the divisive effect it has had on the country is clearer than ever. The country’s constitution was drafted by a group chosen by parliament, the Constituent Assembly; A body subject to boycotts, walkouts, protests, and potential dissolution by Egypt’s courts, due to the fact that it was formed by a parliament that those same courts deemed invalid as it breached a law that reserved a third of the seats for independents.

It was this fear of dissolution that critics say led to the premature passage of the Constitution. The Constituent Assembly was never fully legitimated in the eyes of many Egyptians. Christian members resigned from the Assembly, women stepped down, arguing that they were being sidelined, and many Egyptians were hopeful that the courts would deem the draft Constitution invalid before it had a chance to see a vote. Despite the fact that Constitution was signed by President Morsi, these divisions remain a major impediment to progress and threaten to further destabilize the country. Ongoing popular demonstrations and violence between political factions are signs that political disputes have not been resolved. While these tensions are not likely to boil over, leading to anther revolution, they are likely to lead to future tension and instability as well as countless demands to revisit if not rewrite the Constitution.

For the Muslim Brotherhood, whose popularity among many of Egypt’s more conservative population and strong grassroots helped propel them to early success at the ballot box, missteps during the country’s transition,and the failure to build consensus mean liberals may make substantial gains in the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections. Much of this potential success hinges on the ability of liberal figures to form effective coalitions, something they have thus far failed to do. Regardless, if Egypt is going to see another revolution, it may be a revolution at the polls rather than in the streets.