As Egypt’s constitution writing process has come to an end, and the country is once again gearing up to go to the polls in mid-January in a nationwide referendum, it is worth noting the process that resulted in the drafting of a new constitution, before considering the text itself. The Committee of 50’s performance, as well as the performance of the Nour Party within it, are key to understanding the gains and losses made with the drafting of the 2013 constitution.
It was unnecessary for the process to take place in two stages, the first being the formation of the Committee of Ten Experts, whose work lasted one month. The second stage saw the formation of the Committee of 50 whose work lasted 60 “working” days. The draft produced by the Committee of Ten Experts was completely changed, and had no notable effect in guiding the Committee of 50 in any clear direction. Allotting the entire period for the drafting the constitution to the Committee of 50 would have been a better use of time. After all, the decision to write a new constitution was made from day one, and that process requires more than two months.
A major criticism for the Committee of 50’s work was its secrecy, particularly during its comprehensive discussions on the final draft–by far the most important stage of writing the new constitution. The fact that the final vote on the draft was public is little compensation, since the vote was not accompanied by any discussion demonstrating neither the members’ opinions nor how they reached the final drafts of each article.
The debates within the Committee of 50 and its sub-committees made it clear that the members’ attendance and participation in discussions was less comprehensive than it should have been, given the importance of their work. Most members in the Committee are public figures, well known in the media, to say nothing of the fact that they have many public and private responsibilities in addition to their ‘volunteer’ work in the constitution drafting committee. Given its high degree of importance, drafting the constitution required the members to be, to a certain extent, free from outside concerns in order to ensure in-depth discussions, rather than participate in a pressured and hasty process.
A practical example of this was seen when they voted on whether to retain the Shura Council, or the upper house of the parliament. Only 42 members out of the 50 attended the vote, and the decision to eliminate the Shura Council was made with the approval of only 23 members, while 19 members voted against its elimination. Voting on this issue, and other similarly important issues, required the attendance of all members of the committee, without exception. This would have ensured an expansive discussion took place, and that all members were represented in the final vote on the issue. This could have changed the final decision on an issue of such importance.
The Nour Party’s active participation within the Committee of 50 was most noteworthy. On principle, the party’s attendance and participation was an extension of its general stance towards the June 30 protests, which it considered to be a popular demonstration that former President Mohamed Morsi should have answered by calling for early presidential elections. The Nour Party – the Salafi trend’s largest political party – maintained this position despite its many reservations on steps taken after July 3, including qualms over Islamist representation in the Committee of 50. The Nour Party’s presence, as the only Islamist representative in the committee, was an important balancing factor in retaining what remained of the Islamists within the political process in general. Its position could also attract many segments of Salafis, which will have an effect on the upcoming referendum on the constitution.
In this regard, according to some of the Nour Party’s representatives, one of their main goals in participating in the Committee of 50, and standing alongside Morsi’s ouster, was to improve the image of the Islamist movement. For a large segment of Egyptian society, this image was marred, whether by the performance of an Islamist-dominated parliament which left a negative impression on public opinion, or by Morsi’s performance as an Islamist president.
The Nour Party’s performance in the Committee of 50, through its members Mohamed Ramadan as a primary and Salah Abdel Ma’aboud as an alternate, demonstrated a political flexibility and an ability to propose alternatives and negotiate without clinging to rigid positions. This was confirmed by the fact that, while the party made unofficial threats to withdraw, it held out until the committee’s work was complete. This is also confirmed by the party’s ability to deal with the removal of articles related to Sharia (Articles 4, 81 and 219) from the constitution, despite an initial struggle for the contrary. In fact, the Nour Party was the primary defender of these articles during the writing of the 2012 constitution. This constitutes a tangible development in the party’s political performance, which was not matched by many representatives of the liberal current, whose modus operandi has been to boycott or threaten to withdraw from the political process throughout the three year transition.
The Nour Party’s experience proves that “politicization dismantles ideology.” Engaging in the political process, with all of its conflicts of interest and contradictions, and the obligations that it imposes on political groups to deal with the citizens’ real problems, is enough to guarantee the reduction of ideological differences, and the development of their abilities to coexist and find shared political and social ground. This is the lesson of the Nour Party’s performance in recent months, and it is the same lesson that the Muslim Brotherhood failed to learn, which led to their political downfall.
Yussef Auf is a fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. His work focuses on Egyptian constitutional issues, elections, and judicial matters. He has been a judge in Egypt since 2007.