Redoing the Egyptian Revolution

How to Get the Transition Right This Time

Anti-Mursi protesters wave flags in Egypt's Tahrir Square, July 3, 2013.
Tahrir Square, July 3, 2013. (Asmaa Waguih / Courtesy Reuters)

The Egyptian uprising of 2011 was about many things, but one rallying cry that united almost all Egyptians was the need for a new constitutional order -- one that would promote democracy and ensure that the government serves the interests of the entire society. Dissatisfied with the outcome, large numbers of Egyptians renewed the protest on June 30. Once again, popular demonstrations culminated in the military intervening, this time to reverse the results of the earlier revolution. Again, the generals deposed the president and suspended the constitution. But this time, the victims were President Mohamed Morsi and the constitution that had been approved in a referendum just half a year ago. Now Egyptians will try, once more, to realize a democratic and stable future. Unfortunately, they may not achieve their original goal any time soon.

That is not because Egyptians have no constitutional tradition. They do; it dates back further than that of many European countries. Nor is it because the Egyptian constitutional tradition lacks sophistication, richness, or poplar resonance. It has all these things.

What Egypt lacks, however, is a sound tradition of constitution writing. Mundane procedural problems were the Achilles heel of the 2011 transition, and now the body that made all those mistakes, the Egyptian military high command, has delivered a new road map. Not only is this new plan riddled with some of the same flaws as the old one, it will be put in place in an atmosphere that is anything but conducive to success.

In 2011, there was reason to be hopeful. There was a broad consensus in Egypt that a new constitution should be democratic, protect human rights, and whittle away the power of the presidency, which, under deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, were virtually unlimited. Disagreements about the proper constitutional role of religion were sometimes profound, but the drafters were able to come to some reasonable compromises.

The final document did accomplish some of the revolutionaries’ goals. And the content was far less problematic than some critics alleged. But the process left a very bitter taste in many mouths. The drafters had followed the procedures laid out immediately after the 2011 uprising. But those procedures relied on the willpower of a rough majority, not on inclusive deliberation.

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