Fighting for Egypt’s Identity

GW Professor Nathan Brown discusses what Egypt’s new draft constitution means for the future of the nation.

Nathan Brown
December 17, 2012

Egypt is once again divided, this time over a draft of a new constitution, which makes a majority of personal and political rights subject to Islamic law. Ten of the nation’s 27 provinces voted in Saturday’s referendum, a majority supporting the passing of the draft backed heavily by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But violent street protests over the past week reveal strong opposition to the draft, as demonstrators and secular and liberal groups decried Morsi's actions over the past few months—including a sudden takeover of legislative powers from Egypt’s courts and military council— as moves toward dictatorship.

GW Professor of Political Science and International Affairs Nathan Brown speaks with George Washington Today about the referendum and Egypt’s chances for democracy.

Q:  Has Mohamed Morsi's behavior--his seizure of power, expedition of the vote on the constitution--surprised you?
A: The heavy handed moves taken by Morsi over the past few weeks have surprised me, since I think they were not necessary for Islamist forces to get what they wanted. The ruling party did have some legitimate concerns about opposition tactics and reasons to fear some of the courts. But by and large, Islamists were in the dominant position and could have fended off such pressures without the strong set of measures taken.

While I regard the Muslim Brotherhood's actions as deepening the crisis in many ways, the rush with the constitution was not their fault. The timetable was set in March 2011, over a year and a half ago, and the Muslim Brotherhood had nothing to do with it. At the time, I thought it was a bad idea, and it has turned out to be one.

Q: The New York Times ran an editorial highly critical of the draft constitution, citing among other things its lack of protections for Christians and women's rights. Is the document flawed?
A: The constitution is not as strong in those respects as many would have liked. It does provide very strong freedom of belief, but freedom of practice and of building houses of worship is more likely to be regulated. There was an attempt to write a women's rights provision that would be a compromise between liberals and Islamists but it fell through, so that the clause was dropped completely.

Q:  How will the voting process work?

A: Egypt is divided into two groups of provinces: those voting on Dec. 15 and those voting on Dec. 22. A simple majority will decide the result, regardless of turnout.

The reason voting is spread out over two days is because many judges, who supervise elections in Egypt, are refusing any role. There are only enough judicial personnel participating to supervise half of the country at any one time.

Q: What can we expect in terms of the vote results?
A: The results should be released a day or two after the second round.

Q: What are the chances of democracy in Egypt? Is this progress or a setback?
A: The events of the past few weeks have been extremely polarizing and have brought the legitimacy of the entire process into doubt. All sorts of red lines have been crossed.

Hope for democracy is not lost, and it is possible to imagine scenarios in which the current crisis has a democratic outcome. For instance, if the opposition manages to turn its current outrage into sustained electoral mobilization, Egypt would then have a more pluralist system and an arena (especially parliamentary elections) for them to compete at the polls. At present, however, the electoral strength of the Islamists has made their opponents feel railroaded and led the Islamists to take heavy handed measures.