Speaking in Many Voices: Egyptians Prepare for a Democratic Era

Nathan J. Brown, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University
16 Feb 2012

As Egypt's parliament prepares to designate the drafters of the country's new constitution, the country is embarking on an unprecedented and difficult journey. This is not the first time a constitution will be written for Egypt. But it is the first time so many Egyptians will be focused on writing one. Past documents have been authored by small committees serving existing rulers; now a wide range of voices insist on being heard.

On 11 February 2011, tens of millions of Egyptians seemed to speak one word in a single voice: "Go!" (Irhal!). Hosni Mubarak, the man they were evicting from office as president, had himself spent nearly three decades speaking for the entire society. It was not just that his word was law; it was that all the institutions of the Egyptian state seemed to echo his words. By heading the National Democratic Party, he controlled the parliament; he or his supporters appointed top officials in the military and security apparatus, the judiciary, the press, and even the religious establishment. So when Egyptians read the newspaper, watched television, or even sat in a mosque hearing a Friday sermon, it seemed that it was the president's voice prevailing.
 
In the years before the Egyptian revolution of 2011, many Egyptians used new social networking technologies and older methods (independent newspapers or public demonstrations) to make themselves heard. Since 11 February 2011, there has been much less struggle: Egyptians are now far freer to speak their mind. And they do so, to their great surprise, with many different voices. Their task is now to build a political system that will allow them to continue to do so.
 
Egyptians are now far freer to speak their mind. And they do so, to their great surprise, with many different voices. Their task is now to build a political system that will allow them to continue to do so.
 
In the year since the vast celebration in Tahrir Square marking Mubarak's departure, Egyptians have come to discover how many differences they harbour. Class, faith, degree of religiosity, ideology, gender lead them to see their society very differently and develop deeply contrasting ideas about the best political course for the country. Egyptians continue to demonstrate to demand that the military leave politics; others show alienation and dismay at the disruption that the revolution has brought to Egyptian society; some relish the opportunity to implant Islamic practices more deeply in daily life; others fear that pockets of secularist society will be endangered.
 
And all these various orientations must now work together to build the fundamental structures of political life by writing a constitution. This will hardly be Egypt's first such document, but all past efforts have been spearheaded by rulers or narrow elites surrounding them. For the first time, a diverse and politicized society will be watching and participating in setting down the basic rules of politics. What will they need to do to accomplish this goal in a democratic, just, and stable manner?
 
Most international eyes — and many domestic ones — will go straight to the clauses that concern religion. Since 1980, Egyptians have been governed by a clause that proclaims "the principles of the Islamic shari`a are the main source of legislation." Debate has already begun on whether to modify, tighten, or loosen that phrase. But for all the emotion that such debate generates, the real focus of attention should be directed elsewhere. What so many observers miss is that these formulas are extremely general. Whatever specific meaning they carry will rest not so much on what the words say as on who is empowered to interpret and implement them. 
 
And that is the point that should be made much more generally: a healthy constitution must not only be written in an inclusive process; it must also result in a document that pays careful attention to how decisions are made. In particular, Egyptians will need to solve two problems.
 
a healthy constitution must not only be written in an inclusive process; it must also result in a document that pays careful attention to how decisions are made.
 
First, in a democracy, fundamental policies are set by the majority — but who speaks for the majority? Egyptians are likely to construct a system that has a democratically elected parliament but also an elected president. How will these power centers work together? How will they monitor each other? Egyptians fearful of the instability a parliamentary system can bring — especially when there is no single dominant party — will look to a president for leadership; their fellow citizens who remember being ruled by an imperious presidency will want to whittle the office down to a smaller size.
 
Second, Egyptians working in all sorts of structures — the judiciary, mosques, the state-owned press — have sought over the past year to use the revolution to wriggle free of presidential control. And most political actors in Egypt, wanting to be on the right side of judicial independence and free expression, have supported such efforts. But the result may be a state that itself speaks in many discordant voices, no longer brought to heel by a single political authority. In writing the constitution, Egyptians will need to confront how far such vital institutions should be placed beyond the political process.
 
These struggles seem technical, but they will likely loom large in the coming months. Much of the political focus in Egypt after the revolution has been on the tension between the military council and the Brotherhood; between Islamists and non-Islamists; between civilian political structures and the institutions of the security state; and between older authoritarian ways and newer more participatory ones. Such contests are vital and real. But we should not overlook another emerging contest: between the forces of politics, popular sovereignty, and democracy on the one hand and bureaucracy, expertise, and professionalism on the other.
 
________________________________________________________ 
 
Nathan J. Brown is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the George Washington University. He spoke at the FLJS workshop on ‘Constitutional Revolution and the Arab Spring’ at the University of Virginia on 24 February 2012.
 
Tahrir Square celebration