The call for a new constitution was a key political demand of the Egyptian people when they overthrew the thirty-year dictatorship of Mubarak. Motivating this was the desire to begin dismantling the repressive bureaucratic state machinery they had suffered under and replace it with a democratic government that would be guided by their needs and hopes. Such aspirations served to unite the divergent forces that made Egypt’s political revolution and encourage their grassroots organizing efforts.
Today, even after a successful “yes” vote in a two-part referendum, this new constitution is having the opposite effect. Instead of establishing unity and stability, it has sparked violent division and revealed an underlying insecurity that cannot be overcome by political documents and reorganization alone. The hopes that the Egyptian people had placed in a new constitution have taken a great fall with this effort, though the underlying conditions that drove them to face Mubarak’s wrath continue to fester.
The vote for the constitution was hastily scheduled to take place in two rounds, one on December 15 and the next on December 22. The vote was divided this way because, according to law, judges are suppose to oversee the ballot process, yet most judges refused to participate. Consequently, there were not enough judges available to monitor the elections for a national vote on the same day. The rush was in part prompted by the Mubarak’s courts threatening to rule the Constitutional Assembly unconstitutional.
Even with this maneuver impromptu ballot committees had to be created to fill the void. These committees are suspected of being biased towards President Morsi and his support for the constitution.
There are also widespread creditable accusations of fraud and voter intimidation putting the voting results in doubt.
The buildup to the referendum has been accompanied by weeks of mass mobilizations by those opposed to the constitution and its supporters. The resulting clashes left at least 10 dead and hundreds injured. 120,000 troops and 6,000 tanks and armored vehicles were deployed to prevent continued violence the first day of the vote.
After the first round, the “yes” votes led at 56 percent. Even more importantly, only 32 percent of those eligible to vote actually made it to the polls last Saturday. Summing up these results, activist Wael Ghonim tweeted, “Out of every 100 Egyptians, 69 did not take place in the referendum, 18 said ‘yes’ and 13 said ‘no.”‘
While the results are not official yet, the Muslim Brotherhood is claiming that the second round of votes resulted in a 64 percent “yes” victory. However, turnout is reported to be even lower than the first round at 30 percent. (1)
Such figures hardly constitute a popular mandate for the constitution. It is likely that a good number of voters marked “yes” more out of fear of what would follow if it didn’t pass than any real approval.
For many there is a growing realization that the revolution is in danger of being hijacked by forces hostile to their aspirations. While President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood Party are attempting to use the new constitution as a means of legitimizing their control in a heavy-handed manner, there are also equally dangerous forces from Mubarak’s regime that have aligned themselves with the opposition. These include the former dictator’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Amr Moussa, as well as many members of the judiciary. The fact that progressive popular forces within the opposition to Morsi have aligned themselves with these reactionaries on the basis of their defiance to the constitution has strengthened the president’s claim that he is defending the revolution, which helped him mobilize hundreds of thousands in his defense.
Both Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as these elements from Mubarak’s regime are competing for the political driver’s seat of an economic/political system that depends on keeping popular power gagged, tied, and locked in the trunk. Nevertheless, they are for now, having to lean on the lower classes through street mobilizations in order to strengthen the fight for their narrow interests. Lost in the fray is how the democratic hopes of workers, peasants, and students can act as a motor to challenge the parasitic ambitions of politicians who serve the economic elite, when ordinary citizens are united and organized independently.
For instance, in Venezuela, during President Chavez’s first term, the call for a new constitution had active popular support. The process of turning this into reality engaged the population in the debate and posed a direct challenge to the power of the oligarchs by weakening the political bodies and parties they dominated. As a result, the vast majority of Venezuelans was conscious and organized enough to defeat a coup attempt by the oligarchs against Chavez in 2002 and push the revolutionary process forward.
This has not been the trajectory of Egypt’s current process for creating a new constitution. It has been pursued in a reckless bureaucratic manner. This betrays that there are other matters on the minds of its pushers and that they must first quickly attempt to deal with the nuisance of the peoples’ democratic hopes before getting down to real business. Parts of the constitution are still unfinished, and more importantly, there has been too little time for voters to study and debate it.
If the creation of a new constitution is to reflect the will of the people, the constitutional assembly charged with drafting it must reflect the relations of class forces and other constituencies invested in rebuilding the nation on a democratic basis. Egypt’s Constitutional Assembly is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The 22 assembly members from liberal, leftist, Christian, and centrist organizations have resigned in protest. There are no women or legitimate representatives from Egypt’s union federations. With such a skewed composition in the Constitutional Assembly, it is impossible that its efforts will reflect the will of the people.
What are some of the problems with the constitution that the opposition is objecting to? Religious minorities and secular Egyptians are alarmed that not only are Muslim clerics made arbiters of many civil rights, it also provides a constitutional basis for setting up a Saudi-style “religious police” who would enforce their interpretation of Islamic law.
While the interests of factory owners and company directors are protected, workers’ rights are completely neglected. Considering that bosses frequently refuse to pay workers their wages, unjustly fire employees, and shut down factories with mass layoffs, this omission is a backhanded approval of the mean spirited status quo. The constitution cancels the quota of workers and peasants representation in parliament and the Shura Council, leaving no one to advocate fair labor laws. Its provisions against child labor are toothless and the definition of forced labor is left up to Parliament to decide.
These are not simply oversights on the part of Morsi and the Constitutional Assembly. The President also issued Decree 97. This provision would remove union board members who are over 60 years old from the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. The intent of this decree is to get rid of union leaders with loyalties to Mubarak’s regime. They would be replaced with candidates who received the second largest number of votes in the last union elections in 2006. However, most of these federation-level unionists won by defaults in elections marred by state interference. That leaves most of these positions to be handpicked by the Minister of Manpower, a Muslim Brotherhood member by the name of Khaled al-Azhar. Rather than respecting union democracy, Decree 97 continues the state control over Labor that Mubarak used.
These actions and others moved Saran Burrow, International Trade Union Confederation’s General Secretary, to say, “Looking at President Morsi’s record on workers’ rights, we are seeing a Mubarak Mark II presidency. Workers were at the forefront of the revolution which deposed the old dictatorship, yet they are being betrayed under the new regime, as President Morsi grabs more power for himself.”
When the mass mobilizations against Mubarak escalated into strikes, the dictator was finally forced to step down. Workers’ organizations have the leading role to play in pushing Egypt’s revolution forward. President Morsi’s and the Constituional Assembly’s approach towards the unions reveal that they wish to stop the revolution short of its full potential.
Perhaps the most alarming shortcoming of this constitution is that it leaves the role of the Egyptian military completely untouched. Funded by $1.3 billion a year from the U.S., the armed forces are the foundation of Egypt’s political system and the main obstacle to the revolutions progress. For 60 years the military has ruled above any constitution or elected Parliament. The new constitution does provide protections for freedom of assembly as well as outlawing torture and arbitrary detention. However, Article 198 states, “civilians shall not stand trial before military courts except for crimes that harm the armed forces.” Considering how vague the phrase “harm the armed forces” is, this Article is double speak for continuing the hated practice of putting civilians before military courts.
While censorship is banned, this can be done away with in times of war. It was a similar loophole in the previous constitution that Mubarak used to control the press by declaring a state of emergency for 30 years.
Critically, there is no civilian supervision of military budgets and expenditures. Instead, National Defense Council dominated by military members is set up to deal with such matters.
In short, the role of the military as a state body rising above social concerns and legal considerations is sanctioned in the new constitution. This is in direct conflict with the interests of Egypt’s majority.
The one governing body that clearly has the power to restrain the role of the military in Egypt is the U.S. government, because the Egyptian military is entirely dependent on the $1.3 billion in aid it receives directly from the U.S. each year. But not surprisingly, the U.S. government is more intent on maintaining its own control over the Egyptian military through these economic ties rather than seeing the military under the complete control of the civilian government in Egypt.
The U.S. government believes it must maintain a dominating influence over the Egyptian military because Egypt’s role is too important to be left to its people. Being the most populated nation in the Middle East with the Suez Canal and a border with Israel, Egypt is a strategic player in the region as long as it is playing by Washington, D.C.’s rules. These include maintaining its commitment to the peace treaty with Israel, easy passage for U.S. war ships through the canal, support for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and countering Iranian influence. In such an oil rich region these assets are a great value for any nation. This is not to mention the massive profits U.S. big business is able to syphon from Egypt alone. If democracy were to actually take hold, all this could be in peril. Egypt’s military is there to prevent this.
President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are attempting to walk an impossibly thin tight rope. Because of the revolution they must push back against the old Mubarak guard in the military to get a seat at the table and provide the appearance of playing a progressive role. But they must not challenge the military’s primary function because that would threaten the business relations Egypt’s oligarchy enjoys as a result of its relations with Washington. Given its shaky economy, this situation is all the more untenable. The new constitution is a product of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment not to challenge the fundamental character of the state.
As long as this commitment remains, it will come at great economic costs to the middle and lower classes and the nation’s sovereignty. Egypt’s rate of absolute poverty has risen from 20 percent to 25 percent. Considering that the average per capita income is only $6,200 (CIA World Fact Book), this rise is all the more grinding. Since the revolution, Egypt’s foreign reserves have fallen from $36 billion to $15 billion.
Morsi and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) worked out a $4.8 billion loan that would, in addition, unblock pledged external finance of $14.5 billion. Now this is all on hold due to the political instability Egypt is experiencing. The problem is that these loans were granted with a steep price expected in return.
The aim of the agreement is to reduce the present 11 percent deficit to 8.5 percent in the fiscal year starting July 2013. However, it is Egypt’s besieged working class and poor who are expected to pay for this primarily with increased taxes on water, oil and electricity among other items. It was a similar attempt to cut subsidies on basic foodstuffs that sparked the “bread riots” that threatened the rule of President Anwar Sadat. Mubarak avoided repeating that mistake. Morsi has attempted to rush the vote on the constitution, in part, in order to achieve political stability so he could pursue these austerity measures and handle the public backlash. Clearly, he badly miscalculated on his reckless approach to the constitution. He has also miscalculated in being able to contain the reaction of the people to the austerity measures dictated by the IMF that could potentially unite both conservative Islamists and radical secularists on a class basis in the streets against his government.
All this shows that stability is impossible in Egypt at this time regardless of the constitution’s passage. The demands of the multi-national corporations, U.S. foreign policy and their allies in Egypt’s economic elite and military run into sharp conflict with the needs and enflamed hopes of the nation’s workers and poor. Once a revolution has spilled out into the streets, it is not so easily bottled back up again.
It is possible that the call for a new Constitutional Assembly will grow as Egypt’s economy continues to sputter and even the current Constitution’s supporters see that nothing has substantially changed. There are big shocks ahead as the government attempts to balance the budget at the cost of Egypt’s 99%. Those who believe that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party are committed to a democratic course are in for a rude awakening. What is needed is working class political perspective that will unite Egypt’s workers and poor to mobilize against those who push and benefit from such policies.
1.) “Egyptians back new constitution in referendum” by Yasmine Saleh and Shaimaa Fayed of Reuters