‘The whole Middle East today is boiling,’ according to Ambassador Shaker, Chairman of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs. ‘And at the end of this boiling, probably something new will emerge … we don’t know what it is. It depends not only on us, but on the interference of world powers … we will have at the end perhaps a different Middle East than the one we expected to have.’

Sharing his thoughts on Egypt’s troubled transition, as well as on Syria, Iraq and Libya, he was certain that much rested on Egypt’s forging of a new political system and its ability to set an example for the region: ‘While we draft our new constitution … we have to think about the greater picture. If there is a democracy in Egypt, the region will change in a positive way. If there is no democracy in Egypt … it would be a catastrophe.’

Shaker, a former Ambassador of Egypt to the United Kingdom and Austria, was speaking at last week’s panel discussion at the IISS, which focused on Egypt’s transition and the drafting of its new constitution. Also present were Mona Zulficar, vice president of Egypt’s Constitutional Drafting Committee, and Mohamed Salmawy, president of the Egyptian Writers Union and official spokesperson for the Constitutional Drafting Committee. The event was moderated by Toby Dodge, IISS Senior Consulting Fellow for the Middle East.

Muslim Brotherhood rule ended on 3 July, after millions of Egyptians took to the streets and the army removed President Muhammad Morsi, but the situation is still far from settled. Violent clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and the state have continued in major towns.

The panellists admitted there were many challenges ahead, but provided an optimistic timeline for Egypt’s political transition. Shaker explained that the Constitutional Drafting Committee was focused on the creation of the new constitution, which would then be put to a vote, followed by elections – first parliamentary, then presidential. By June 2014, they hoped, Egypt would ‘have all the elements of our democratic system in place’, he said.

In early September, Egypt’s interim president named a group of 50 delegates to serve as the committee. Mona Zulficar spoke about its idealistic aims, saying that the committee was composed of Egyptians from many different backgrounds and walks of life, and lacked a dominant power: ‘There is no critical mass that controls the voting ... we are writing a constitution that has no political ideology.’ 

But during the Q and A session that followed the panel discussion, an audience member expressed concern that the committee, ‘fantastic as it is’, had not been elected by representatives, and questioned what implications this had for its legitimacy and transparency. Furthermore, she mused whether it was appropriate to have these no doubt ‘talented’ individuals writing a constitution if they had no constitutional experience, illustrating her point by asking whether it would be appropriate for playwright Tom Stoppard, or Hugh Grant, to write the British constitution. (Salmawy later responded that ten constitutional experts were also involved in creating the document.)

Zulficar took pains to stress that the constitution would protect the rights and fundamental freedoms of all Egyptians, and give priority to social and economic rights (40% or more Egyptians live under poverty line), women’s rights and the rule of law. ‘It will not solve all problems – but we lay a strong foundation for building a democracy … we also realise this will be a model for the region,’ Zulficar said. 

She added that they wanted to create a base for a democratic system in which no dictator or executive figure could strong-arm the legislature: ‘We do not want to recreate the dictators of the last 60 years. Each power [will have] checks and balances.’

Salmawy added that freedom of speech would be a central component, including articles not just for freedom of the press, but also freedom of artistic and literary creation, freedom of faith and religion and freedom of scientific research. This emphasis was not surprising, he said, because ‘we were deprived of this freedom for a number of decades, but even more so in the last year, in which all our freedoms were trampled upon’.

In January 2011, he said, the Egyptians wanted and hoped for a third alternative, in contrast to the ‘basic equation’ offered by Hosni Mubarak: that the Egyptian people had to choose between his rule or a religious state.

It took two years, under an interim leadership, to decide on the shape of parliamentary and presidential elections. After this chaos, at the first election in June 2012, people opted for the religious candidate over a former general who characterised the old regime – believing they could depose Morsi if they were dissatisfied, because there was supposed to be a democracy, Salmawy asserted.

Within a few months – not even a year – of Morsi’s rule, people suffered the ‘biggest disillusionment in generations’, he said. The rule of the Muslim Brotherhood was in no way inclusive. ‘It was exclusive, ideological, despotic and undemocratic.’

Nevertheless, the contentious issue of whether deposing Morsi by force constituted a coup, or whether it represented the will of Egypt’s citizens, was revisited in the Q and A session.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters argue that Morsi's ouster was a coup, that it was the only legitimate party and that therefore any subsequent political process will be undemocratic and illegitimate. It has so far refused to deal with the interim government, and is not represented on the drafting committee (except by a former member critical of the organisation), underscoring its political marginalisation. Its opposition could threaten any future political structure, and there may yet be fallout resulting from a recent court ruling banning the organisation and freezing its assets. (Read the recent IISS Strategic Comment on the volatile situation in Egypt, and the dangers of excluding the Muslim Brotherhood and ignoring Islamist disaffection.)

Salmawy argued that deposing Morsi had been 'the will of the people', who had expressed dissatisfaction with the government and asked for an early election, which the leadership rejected. In response, Egyptians had nowhere to go but the streets – and to ask for help from the army, which Salmawy interpreted as evidence that the system in place under Morsi had not been democratic.

‘The military intervention … should not be the standard means of changing governments in Egypt, but the fact that this had happened at all is the direct proof that there was no democracy – had there been a real democratic rule, maybe the army would not have intervened at all.’

Salmawy admitted that there were opponents, and obtacles, to the transition process. ‘We hope that all will take part in this rebuilding democracy … this is the problem we are facing now , that some have not come to terms with the changes …  but the force of change is so strong in Egypt.’

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