Egypt’s constitution: it’s not really about the religious clauses

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

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 and 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 demand that the military leave politics; others show 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 politicised 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 sharia 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.

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