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Alaa Al Aswany Headshot

You Can Have Your Constitution and We Will Have the Revolution

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Suppose you wanted to build a house. You have the money but you can't build it yourself, so you call in a builder to take on the task in your place. And since building a house is a job for specialists and needs to be done according to sound engineering principles using materials that meet certain specifications, you also need to arrange for an architect to supervise the builder. The architect sets the specifications for the building materials, makes sure the builder follows the right procedures and in the end would inspect the house on delivery. This is the right way to have your house built. The question is: what if the builder told you he didn't need an architect and that he would choose the building materials and decide on all the building procedures himself? What if the builder told you: "What's the difference between me and the architect? We both build houses. I'll do the building work and I'll supervise myself."

You may dismiss his proposal to avoid a conflict of interests. The builder has an interest in using the cheapest materials and overlooking defects in the construction so that he doesn't have to spend money correcting them, whereas the architect is impartial -- he specifies the materials and ensures that the building work meets the standards he has set.

This simple example of a conflict of interests is what is happening now with the committee set up to write the constitution. The constitution is like the architect and the People's Assembly is like the builder. The builder cannot do the work of the architect and supervise his own performance, just as the People's Assembly cannot write a constitution that defines its own prerogatives. The constitution is the source of law and defines the relationship between the different branches of government; so one branch of government should not interfere in writing it. This constitutional principle is endorsed by the major scholars of constitutional law in Egypt. In fact Egypt's supreme constitutional court under Judge Awad el-Murr ruled on December 17, 1994, that, "The constitution creates the institutions of the state, including the Council of State and the government. It specifies their responsibilities and the rules that govern them, so an institution that is created by the constitution should not be able to create the constitution."

The People's Assembly, which is a creation of the constitution, should not be able to write the constitution. This truth is glaringly obvious, but the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist members of parliament insist on forming the constitutional drafting committee themselves, under their own control. They have filled half the committee with members of the People's Assembly and the Shoura Council (from the Brotherhood and the Salafists), made up the other half with people affiliated with political Islam, and finally, added some independents to act as extras and false witnesses to the act of constitutional hijacking. Could this biased and misshapen committee specify the powers of parliament or set limits to them when members of parliament have an absolute majority within it? Could this committee abolish the rule that half the members of parliament must be either workers or peasants when there are workers and peasants on the committee? Would the committee abolish the Shoura Council when it has members belonging to it? Could we imagine members of the People's Assembly abolishing their own privileges and setting limits on themselves when they write the constitution, when they are in full control of the drafting committee?

The Brotherhood and the Salafists say they have been elected by the people and so they have a right to write the constitution by proxy. This is a major fallacy: the tasks of a representative assembly are quite different from those of a constituent assembly. We elect someone to the constituent assembly either because he has wide experience of law and knowledge of constitutions or because he belongs to a group or sector of society whose will must be expressed in the constitution. But this person we choose to write the constitution may not be suitable as a member of parliament. Conversely, we elect members of parliament because of their ability to connect with the masses and for their political experience. They may not have the qualities needed for writing the constitution. The political majority in the People's Assembly has the right to form the government and to implement policies, but they don't have the right to write the constitution single-handedly. All Egyptians must participate in the constitution through representation of minorities and of all points of view. In fact, representing minorities in the constitution is much more important than representing the majority. If there is a single Buddhist or Hindu Egyptian he or she must be taken into account in writing the constitution, in order to ensure his or her civil rights are protected.

The Brotherhood and the Salafists should have refrained from tampering with the constitution and left the whole spectrum of the Egyptian nation to represent itself, so that there would be a constitution that establishes the modern democratic state for which hundreds of Egyptians sacrificed their lives during the revolution. Here we must ask ourselves why do the Brotherhood and the Salafists ignore glaring truths and violate the principles of constitutional law? Have the Brotherhood and the Salafists suddenly become cheats and liars? Definitely not. Like all political movements, political Islam, despite our ideological disagreement with it, includes patriotic and upright people. So why then do they try to deceive people and ignore the truth?

The answer is simply that their motives are ideological and religious and not political or intellectual. Their quest for power is driven by religious belief. We must differentiate between Islam as a religion and political Islam. Every Muslim is necessarily Islamic. If you're a Muslim, then certainly you want to implement the teachings of Islam in every aspect of your life. That's what Islam requires. But political Islam is a political project that uses Islam not as a religion but as a political platform that brings its advocates to power and then tries to install a caliph to rule the whole Islamic world. Political Islam is an idea foreign to modern Egyptian history because all Egyptian leaders since Mohamed Ali in the 19th century have been Muslims and have drawn on their religion for fine humanitarian principles. From Islam they learned truth, justice and freedom, but they never considered Islam to be a political project. Mustafa el-Nahas, the Wafdist leader, was a committed Muslim who rigorously performed his religious duties. But he was strict about keeping religion and politics apart, so much so that he once refused to read a party's manifesto because it made references to God: "When you write the word God in a piece of political propaganda, you instantly become a charlatan."

The Islamists have a right to exercise their political rights, but it is our duty to explain that using religion for political ends is bound to lead to bad practices. Religion is an exclusive belief, in the sense that believers believe that their religion is the only true faith. Muslims hold that God's religion is Islam, while other religions are either false or corrupted. Christians hold their faith to be the only truth while other religions are untrue. Jews think both Christians and Muslims are mistaken because they do not think the Messiah has yet appeared. Religion is not a point of view open to discussion, but something that believers consider to be an absolute truth that they will defend to the death and to which they cannot accept any challenge.

However educated someone might be, and however broadminded and tolerant they are, as soon as their religion is contested, they will lose their temper and fiercely defend their beliefs. This is the nature of religious faith. It is quite different from political opinions because however strongly one might feel , in the end,one knows political opinions are a matter of human judgment, always open to criticism and adjustment. Practicing politics with the sentiments of religion generally leads to fanaticism and attempts to obtain power by any means regardless of the interests and rights of others.

It's hard for advocates of political Islam to recognize the rights of their political adversaries because they believe that those who disagree with them oppose their religion: they are either infidels, sinners, agents of the West or of Zionism, or, at the very least, degenerates trying to spread abominations among the faithful. If you disagree with the Brotherhood and the Salafists, then you disagree with Islam itself. That's what they believe and so they cannot respect those who disagree with them or listen to their point of view.

Advocates of political Islam, as one of their sheikhs once declared, see elections as a military campaign, a war between Muslims and the enemies of Islam, and it would make no sense to stop fighting in one of these campaigns in order to listen to the opinion of the enemies of the true religion, nor would it make sense to recognize their rights if you had the means to deny them to advance your own interests.

The Brotherhood and the Salafists do not see the constitution as a social contract that should express the will of the people as a whole. They see writing it as a golden opportunity to be exploited, to turn Egypt from a civil state that has been open to all citizens since the 19th century into a religious state in which the religious sheikhs hold absolute power based on their understanding of religion, however strange or mistaken their conception of it may be. Writing the constitution in this biased and flawed manner will lead to a constitution that does not represent Egyptians. The writing of the constitution and the presidential elections are the final scenes in a drama that the Brotherhood and the military have prepared together. A political bargain in which the Brotherhood has agreed to act as the political wing of the Military Council, concurring in all the Council's policies and guaranteeing its privileges in the constitution, and then supporting their favored presidential candidate. In return the Military Council helps them win most of the seats in parliament.

We see a People's Assembly whose independence is shackled and does not dare disobey the orders of the Military Council. We see a military council that looks on as the Brotherhood and the Salafists violate the people's right to a constitution that speaks for all Egyptians and turns Egypt into a modern state.

Write the constitution as you wish, but it will remain your constitution. You will not be able to impose it on the people. The revolution will continue, God willing, until it frees Egypt of despotism and restores authority to the people, regardless of the deal between the Brotherhood and the military.