Abdel Rahman Youssef may be one of the most accomplished multi-taskers in Cairo: A poet, author, political activist and television news anchor, he has documented Egypt’s revolution with the precision of a journalist and the instincts of an insider. In his downtown office on January 27, Youssef spoke candidly about his disappointment with the failure of liberals to coordinate effectively in the recent elections and warned of the potential for a polarizing constitutional crisis if the SCAF insists on drafting the new charter in the few remaining weeks before the presidential election.

Although he is the son of the prominent cleric Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, Youssef has long since outgrown his father’s long shadow with his own high-profile media career and reputation as a leading liberal political organizer. As the former coordinator of the campaign supporting Mohamed ElBardei, who recently dropped out of the presidential race, Youssef was on the frontlines of a grassroots movement to delegitimize the former regime of Hosni Mubarak. Youssef’s activism in ElBaradei’s campaign – an irritating challenger to the ruling party and political status quo, soon became a target himself of the regime’s invasive surveillance tactic.  An electronic bug planted by the internal security services was discovered in Youssef’s office on November 6, 2010, several weeks before the start of protests in Tahrir Square that ultimately brought an end to Mubarak’s rule.

Youssef no longer works for the campaign of Mohamed ElBaradei, who abruptly dropped out of the presidential race last month, but he remains connected to political groups and protests movements in his reporting for the private television network, Capital Broadcasting Center (CBC). When an anti-SCAF protest on November 22, 2011 devolved into deadly clashes with security forces – killing at least 38 civilians – Youssef donned a gas mask to cover the protests live from Tahrir Square.

Youssef is no stranger to riot shields and tear gas, but he believes that the next major political battle will be fought not in the streets, but over the new constitution – which will need to resolve deep disagreements over the structure of the future political system and the distribution of power between civilians and the military. In this excerpt of a video interview with EgyptSource editor, Mara Revkin, Youssef outlines the high stakes of Egypt’s contested constitutional process:

Transcript by Wafaa al-Sayed:

“The process of writing the constitution is an important process in all nations after revolutions;  often the problem is how to balance the civil nature of the state with military institutions.  There are some who argue about the identity of the Egyptian state, but to me, the problem is not with national identity but with the military character of the Egyptian state.  We are now facing a national military institution that has de facto governed the country for the past 60 years.  Bringing an end to governance by the military will not be easy, but it will be impossible for the army to remain in power.

Therefore, we will go through a time period in there will be a process of normalizing relations between the civilians and the armed forces.  This phase – inherent to any nation undergoing a democratic transition – may see hurdles, violence, and even political assassinations. But it is also possible that if this period is managed wisely, it will pass peacefully.  This phase could linger on for a protracted period, but it could also pass  within a few years and give rise to freely elected state institutions. 

I believe that Egypt is experiencing a universal phase in the history of nations and will face the challenging of writing a constitution that defines Egypt as a civil state, with leaders who are elected to their positions and are not given power as a reward for service to the military. Merit and the trust of the people should be the criteria for public service.”

Mara Revkin is the assistant director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and editor ofEgyptSource. She can be reached at mrevkin@acus.org

Video Credit: Mara Revkin
Photo Credit: YouTube