Egypt's Constitutional Ghosts

Deciding the Terms of Cairo’s Democratic Transition

Egyptians seeking to build a new future after the rule of Hosni Mubarak hope to draw on, as well as correct, the flaws in the country's longstanding constitutional tradition. In the days since a military council took power from Mubarak, the country's political opposition has been quick to articulate its demands in the language of dry legal texts and procedures.

The current constitution was first enacted in 1971 and amended several times in the years afterward, but its precursors date back to a century before. Egypt's first constitutional effort came in 1882, when an assembly approved a basic law to govern its relationship with the cabinet. In 1923, when the country gained its independence from the British Empire, a second and more comprehensive document was written to combine, however uneasily, a parliamentary system with a monarchy.

When the 1923 constitution was scrapped in the wake of a 1952 military coup, Egypt's legal scholars set to work designing a republican constitution based on liberal and democratic values. Their work was shelved in 1954, however, by the country's new military rulers, who issued instead a series of documents to serve their own ideological and institutional needs. These new rules delivered the Egyptian polity into the hands of a one-party system in which all power rested with Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's president until his death in 1970.

In 1971, Egypt received a new constitution, which would prove to be a more complicated and long-lived document. When Anwar al-Sadat succeeded Nasser, he found himself with rivals in various institutions, such as in the sole political party and the security apparatus. At the same time, he looked to recalibrate the regime's ideology, moving gently away from socialism and toward religion. Both problems, he realized, could be addressed with a new constitution. Sadat convened a large and remarkably diverse committee: feminists, Islamic legal scholars, liberals, socialists, nationalists, and representatives of the Christian church were all represented. On the whole, the group moved in the direction Sadat wanted: weakening the party, nominally strengthening legal institutions, and promising Egyptians a move away from the harshest aspects of Nasserist authoritarianism.

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