Protesters Demand Changes To Egypt's Constitution

A new barrier to political change in Egypt has emerged, and it's the country's constitution. Is changing it necessary to effect meaningful political change? Nathan Brown, a constitutional expert who tracks the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, talks to Steve Inskeep about Egypt's constitution.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Protestors in Egypt are demanding changes to their country's constitution. American officials say that document complicates the effort to make President Hosni Mubarak leave. So we're going to talk about Egypt's constitution this morning with Nathan Brown, a constitutional expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Welcome to the program.

NATHAN BROWN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: From the perspective of the opposition here, what's wrong with Egypt's constitution?

BROWN: Well, the problem with - there are all sorts of problems with Egyptian constitution in sort of the details: how elections are run, how much power's given to the parliament, and so on.

But there's real problems for it, especially if they want to move towards a different kind of system. If Hosni Mubarak resigns, for instance, then that kicks into being a process of immediate presidential elections, and you can't amend the constitution. In order to amend the constitution, it's got to go to a parliament, the parliament right now that is stacked with members of the ruling National Democratic Party that nobody trusts. So if they try to amend the system through the system, they run into a variety of roadblocks and booby traps.

INSKEEP: Let me play a piece of tape here. This is P.J. Crowley, State Department spokesman, who was on the program yesterday. And he addressed this very problem that you just referred to.

CROWLEY: If Hosni Mubarak stepped down today, the constitution, as is currently written, says there has to be an election in 60 days. And there are only one or two elements within Egyptian society today that have the organizational skill to run an effective campaign.

INSKEEP: And he basically suggests one of those organizations would be the Muslim Brotherhood. So is this a real problem? It sounds like you think it is.

BROWN: I'd worry much less about the Muslim Brotherhood. I mean, they are certainly an actor here, but they're not really in a position to win any immediate election hands-down. The real problem is that if they go by the book, there are very, very few ways to really force any kind of transition to a more democratic and pluralistic system.

There are some fairly ingenious schemes that have been dreamed up, but for the most part, what the opposition seems to be saying now is not only do we want the president to go, but we want to scrap this document and start over.

INSKEEP: And let's talk about what you mentioned when you said that there are restrictions on elections and so forth. Aren't there restrictions on which parties can even field candidates in elections in Egypt?

BROWN: Absolutely. There's restrictions - if they were going to have presidential elections under the existing constitutional provisions, basically what that would mean is the existing regime could name whatever candidate or perhaps a couple candidates that they would want. But any meaningful opposition couldn't really field a candidate.

INSKEEP: This is reminding me of discussions that we've had over the years about Iran, where there is a democracy, there are elections, but all the rules are slanted in such a way that only certain people really have a chance to win. This is what you're talking about here.

BROWN: Absolutely. The Egyptian constitutional system actually looks an awful lot like those in Europe and plenty of other places in the world. But there's a variety of escape hatches and ways in which the president can essentially override any part of it that he finds inconvenient. There were a few sort of liberal loopholes in the document that could - that Egyptians were learning to push in a more pluralistic direction. And in 2007, the regime pushed through a series of constitutional amendments that slammed all those doors.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about those 2007 amendments. This is an uncomfortable question, I think, for Americans. These are anti-terrorism measures you're talking about here in part, right? They're allowing, among other things, wiretapping without warrants, arbitrary arrests and searches, military tribunals in terrorism cases - which does raise the question of whether the United States, which has Egypt as an ally in its fight against terrorism, has been benefiting from the provisions of a constitution that we would never want ourselves.

BROWN: Well, a lot of these things are in the constitution. Some of them are not. They occur through extraconstitutional, extralegal means. But what the constitution doesn't give is Egyptian citizens any kind of ability to challenge these. When the government does something that completely violates the law and the constitution through this sort of security apparatus, there aren't a lot of effective mechanisms that Egyptians have to call their authorities to account.

INSKEEP: Well, that raises another question: If the government can ignore the constitution, well, why can't the people ignore the constitution and just hold an election that makes sense?

BROWN: That's what a lot of the people are saying right now. They've got two problems, if that's what they're going to do: Number one, even if they decide to do this, how do they actually sit down and write a document? What kind of procedures? And second, how do they force the government, the current regime right now, to give in to that kind of demand? Other then pouring out in the streets, they don't really have a lot of levers.

INSKEEP: Nathan Brown, author of "Constitutions in a Nonconstitutional World." Thanks very much.

BROWN: Thank you.

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