Egypt's Constitution Conundrum

The Good, the Bad, and the Unruly in Cairo

Egypt's riot police, in front of the presidential palace in Cairo. (Amr Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters)

The final draft of Egypt's proposed new constitution, completed in late November, was produced in such a flurry of political maneuvering, threats, and shrill rhetoric that commentators and citizens alike are still trying to understand its implications. From a liberal democratic perspective, there is much to like in the document, especially compared with the one it is replacing. For example, the drafters not only specified a long list of freedoms, as their predecessors did, but also made the wording more difficult for officials to wiggle around. But the document includes just as much that causes concern. It postpones answering the question of civilian oversight of the military until the next constitution is written, years from now. And there are gaping holes and ambiguities that only politics can fill in.

And that is the critical point so often missed: political context always shapes the meaning of constitutional texts. The Arab world's experience with apparently democratic constitutional provisions confirms the rule. Democracy has failed in the Arab world not because governments have routinely violated their countries' highest laws (although they have occasionally cheated) but, rather, because their constitutions' democratic promises have generally been as vague as possible and were left to parliaments to flesh out through regular statutes. European countries first developed that system to ensure that popularly elected bodies, not kings, would define basic rights. When Arab regimes copied the practice -- for example, many of

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