by Joseph Klein
Egyptians have a new draft constitution to vote upon in a referendum to be held either later this month or in January 2014. It is meant to replace, with amendment language and new provisions, the more Islamist-oriented constitution rammed through by former Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi. “It is now the right of every Egyptian to declare that this is their constitution,” said Bishop Bola, the representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church on the panel that was responsible for drafting the new constitution.
The big loser will be the Muslim Brotherhood, eclipsed by representatives from a more conservative Islamist party and from Al-Azhar University, the seat of Sunni learning, who spoke for Islamists on the drafting panel and have backed the new constitution. The drafting panel also consisted of activists from Tamarod, the secular youth movement that rallied millions of Egyptians who demanded that Morsi step aside, leading to his ouster and replacement by an interim government under the rule of the defense minister, General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi.
The constitution drafters and the interim government leaders hope that there will be a significantly larger turnout of voters to approve this constitution than showed up to approve Morsi’s constitution. A larger turnout and vote in support of the draft constitution would serve to legitimize the current interim government’s self-proclaimed move towards a more inclusive, democratic regime – at least, that is what the interim government leaders are claiming. Whether presidential or parliamentary elections would be held first following the constitution’s ratification remains an open question, possibly to provide the opportunity for Sisi to run for president and consolidate his influence in advance of more contentious, drawn-out parliamentary elections.
On paper, the new constitution would grant new important rights to Egyptian citizens, including protection against torture, human trafficking and persecution for religious belief. It bans parties founded on religion or sect and mandates equality between men and women, both slaps in the face of the Muslim Brotherhood which tried to remake the country in its own image of an Islamist state. In practice, however, the new constitution is but another in a series of constitutional documents, more honored in their breach than their observance. While the new draft pays lip service to human rights and is more secular in nature than its predecessor, the draft keeps Sharia law as the basis for legislation. Repression of dissent, limitations on freedom to practice one’s own religion, and violence and discrimination against women are likely to remain the grim reality on the streets of Egypt. State institutions such as the military and the police will retain their privileged status.
Not surprisingly, the Muslim Brotherhood has already denounced the new draft constitution. It said that “abusive coupists” were trying to “distort Egypt’s legitimate constitution,” by which they mean the Islamist-oriented constitution foisted on the Egyptian people last year by a far less inclusive drafting process. Liberals, secularists and the Coptic Church were on the outside looking in, in contrast to their inclusion in the current drafting process.
The Obama administration appears to be taking a wait-and-see attitude towards the new draft constitution. But, in the meantime, the administration continues to punish the interim regime by cutting off vital military aid, including the delivery of F-16s, M1A1 tank kits, Harpoon missiles and Apache helicopters. It does so on the pretext that the regime’s forcible suppression of dissent and lack of inclusiveness forced the administration to the point that “we could not continue business as usual with respect to our assistance.”
Why not begin resuming at least some deliveries now that the interim government has taken at least a preliminary step on its roadmap towards a more inclusive civil democracy? The excuse appears to be a recently passed law placing restrictions on protest demonstrations, which was aimed at curbing the incessant protests by Islamists supporting Morsi before violence could erupt but has also ensnared some disaffected secularist activists. In a press statement issued on November 25, 2013, Jen Psaki, State Department Spokesperson, said that “this law, which imposes restrictions on Egyptians’ ability to assemble peacefully and express their views, does not meet international standards and will not move Egypt’s democratic transition forward.” Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, piled on with this tweet on November 26th: “New law regulating peaceful protests in #Egypt simply doesn’t meet intl standards. Gov’t must protect freedoms, and this law restricts them.”
Why didn’t the administration apply the same “international standards” when it kept the arms flowing unabated to the repressive, non-inclusive Morsi regime? The truth is that the administration would have preferred the Islamist Morsi regime to remain in power.
Recall that as millions of anti-Morsi protesters filled the streets of Egypt last June in peaceful demonstrations, Anne Patterson, the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt at the time, said that she and “my government” were “deeply skeptical” about the effectiveness of “street action.” In a little-noticed statement before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on October 29, 2013, A. Elizabeth Jones, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, said the “decision to remove Morsi” was “troubling.”
President Obama still appears to view the Muslim Brotherhood, whose representatives he invited to his June 2009 speech in Cairo, as the preferred, legitimate rulers in Egypt. It is part of a dramatic pivot that has placed Obama on the side of Islamist authoritarian regimes against more secular, military-supported authoritarian regimes in the region.
“In previous attempts to appeal to the peoples of the region, that is, in Ankara and Cairo in 2009, Obama presented a vision of an America that is no longer an imperialist power that maintains military bases in the region and intervenes militarily to protect the status quo, but a country that identifies with the aspirations and interests of the Arab and Muslim peoples and disregards their regimes. In Obama’s perception, the overall U.S. shift in recent years – the pinnacle of which is his attempts at reconciliation with the Iranian regime – does not stem from weakness but is ideologically directed; it dovetails with and intensifies the revolutionary changes taking place in the Arab world since the Arab Spring, with the aim of integrating the U.S. into the Arab and Muslim world of the future.”
The new draft Egyptian constitution, as imperfect as it is, represents an improvement over the Muslim Brotherhood-backed constitution. It was also drafted with more inclusive participation. Egypt will not be a Jeffersonian democracy, no matter who rules. Therefore, given the choice between a nominally more inclusive but authoritarian secular regime committed to fighting terrorism and standing by international treaties, versus an authoritarian jihadist regime that at best turned a blind eye to Islamist violence against Christians and other “infidels” and questioned its existing treaty obligations, the correct choice should be clear. Sadly, the Obama administration appears committed to choosing the wrong side.
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