Egypt’s constitution: Islamists prepare for a long political battle

Nathan Brown writes: Those who follow the Egyptian constitutional process have every reason to be confused and concerned. Leaks, partial drafts, and conflicting accounts make the content of the document hard to follow. But the constitutional stakes in Egypt seem to be very high, and the debate has become emotional and charged. Rhetoric is highly polarized, with non-Islamists claiming that Islamists have hijacked the process. The Islamists retort that their contemplated changes are small. Their critics, the Islamists say, cannot accept election results that indicate strong support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements.

In a sense, both sides are right. Islamists are correct when they claim to be acting with restraint. The document they are producing will make only limited and subtle textual changes in religion-state relations compared to the 1971 constitution. On the issues on which there has been most controversy, such as explicit mentions of the Islamic sharia, changes will be particularly light. But their critics are also correct. Islamists are dominating the process and are likely to see a constitution that reflects their interests.

This is not so much because of the tools that they are crafting and more because of who will be using those tools if Egypt’s future elections look anything like its most recent ones. The 2012 constitution will be operating in a very different political context, so that even the step of adopting past language is likely to produce very different results. In this way, Egypt’s new constitution will not so much resolve all controversies as it will set up a period of prolonged trench warfare within, among, and over a series of institutions. And Islamist forces are likely to move forward gradually rather than by suddenly capturing the state. This struggle will likely take place over many years, and the outcome will determine what the vague language of the constitution actually means in the lives of ordinary Egyptians. [Continue reading…]

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