Tahrir Square flag

Over the past 48 hours, Tahrir Square has morphed into a melting pot of political and social forces – optimists, skeptics, champions of the revolution, and critics of the torpid pace of democratic reform. Egyptians representing all social constituencies – the intelligentsia, the political elite, elbow-to-elbow with vendors hawking revolutionary memorabilia and popcorn – were out in full force on January 26, lingering long after the close of official celebrations commemorating the revolution to reassert ownership over a transition that is floundering under the heavy-handed grip of military rule. 

Signs and graffiti around the square loudly (and often profanely) spelled out the grievances of the crowd, including members of the April 6 Youth Movement and the Union of Revolutionary Youth who have declared an open-ended sit-in until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) agrees to relinquish all of its powers.  A large proportion of the slogans express venomous disdain for the military leadership and demand retribution for the victims of state-perpetrated violence during and since the revolution.  But on January 26, I noticed a new trend in signage:  Banners proclaiming “No Constitution Under Military Rule” had been raised over Tahrir Square, signaling the awakening of the public – or at least the politically engaged elements congregating in Tahrir Square – to what could be a looming crisis over the future constitution. 

After months of headlines dominated by election results and fierce partisan competition, protesters and political movements are realizing – too late – that the most explosive threat to Egypt’s transition is far more damaging than tear gas. The next pothole in Egypt’s already hazardous road to democracy will be the process of drafting a new constitution. Egypt’s military leaders, in an apparent effort to build a legal firewall around their political privileges before a new civilian president can challenge them, have forcefully asserted a timeline and roadmap for the constitutional process that spells disaster. 

Both the SCAF and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party – which holds a near-majority in the People’s Assembly and the influential position of parliamentary speaker – are both backing a transitional sequence stipulating the drafting of a new constitution before the presidential election in June.  In a disheartening interview on January 26, Negad El Borai – one of Egypt’s most prominent legal thinkers and a leading human rights advocate – estimated that it should take at least six to twelve months for Egypt’s diverse political forces to negotiate a constitutional framework perceived as the legitimate product of inclusive consultations engaging all social, religious and political interest groups. Instead, Egypt’s military leaders are pushing for a new constitution drafted at breakneck speed by a one hundred-member assembly selected by a parliament in which Islamist forces hold over 70 percent of the seats. In order to produce a new constitution before the presidential election, the committee would need to draft the document in a matter of weeks – between the conclusion of Shura Council elections in March and  the opening of the candidate nomination period on April 15. 

Despite assurances by FJP leaders that they are committed to forming an ideologically diverse and inclusive assembly, liberals fear that non-Islamists, women and religious minorities will only be allowed token representation in the committee.  Interviewed a few blocks from Tahrir Square on January 26, Shadi Ghazaly Harb, a member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition and a leading figure in the liberal Awareness Party, said he fears that an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly would hardwire a legal framework that further marginalizes the liberal minority – a recipe for “dictatorship by the majority” and a far cry from the pluralistic democracy envisioned by the revolution. Harb and other liberals with whom I spoke said they favor postponing the new constitution until after the presidential election, even if it means electing a civilian executive with ambiguous and undefined powers. In their view, a president with a constitutionally vague mandate would be a far greater hazard to democracy than a hastily constructed constitution lacking the broad-based popular buy-in needed to ensure its legitimacy and durability.