What Will The History Books Say About Egypt's New Constitution?

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Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon speaks with Egyptian historian and activist Khaled Fahmy about a new constitution and where his country's current transition fits in the arc of Egyptian history.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Scott Simon.

Egyptians returned to the polls today for the second time to vote on a draft constitution for their country. Results for the vote are not expected until Sunday. The proposed constitution has deeply divided a country that just two years ago rose up to overthrow its regime. President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood have laid out a constitution that by all early indications is likely to pass. But many of the same activists that were in Tahrir Square at Egypt's revolution are voting against it.

Khaled Fahmy is one of those political activists. He's also chair of the history department at the American University of Cairo. We spoke with him yesterday and asked what he opposes in this constitution.

KHALED FAHMY: For one thing, it gives the military significant presence in the political sphere. It exempts the military budget from any scrutiny by the elected officials, by parliament. It establishes a national security council that is dominated by military men rather than by civilians, and it alone has the task of supervising anything pertaining to the military.

In addition, with regards to religion, it allows now the Al-Azhar University and Azhar mosque, a thousand-year old Islamic Sunni seminary in Egypt, to have a say in interpreting the constitution. So, these, again, are very serious concerns that we have.

SIMON: Professor Fahmy, I have to ask you, when you and other activists were in the streets, Tahrir Square and elsewhere, calling for democracy, did it never occur to you that this could be the result of democracy?

FAHMY: Of course, we were carried away by the speed with which we broke down the former regime. At the back of our minds we knew that the road ahead is difficult. But we never really thought it would be that difficult. And I, personally, for one, when I look back at what we have accomplished over the past two years - nearly two years now - I actually say it's not really very bad. We managed to significantly curtail the power of the military and as a society in Egypt now, we are dealing with two things at the same time, that any other society, including Western European societies had taken centuries to deal with, namely what to do with religion and what to do with the military.

SIMON: What do you tell your students about - you're a professor of history - about where this period of time fits into Egyptian history and world history?

FAHMY: I tell them that this is part of an ongoing struggle and right now we are fortunate enough to live in one of the most exciting chapters in the long, long, long history of Egypt, a chapter in which Egyptians are trying to make the state answer their interests, rather than somebody else's interests, and this is something that will take a long time.

SIMON: If the constitution, to which you are opposed, is approved, how do you exercise citizenship after that? What are you trying and do?

FAHMY: This constitution is born dead, as far as I'm concerned. The process in which it was drafted and the way we have been asked to vote on it, and more importantly, its actual contents, are such that we cannot freely accept it. So we will continue to struggle. I don't know how long the struggle will be, but as far as I'm concerned this constitution has no chance of ever being implemented on the ground.

SIMON: Sounds like you are discouraged but optimistic.

FAHMY: I am discouraged on the short run, I'm very, very optimistic on the long run. We've seen much more difficult days. We've gone through them. I have no doubt that the future is ours. It's just not immediately going to turn rosy tomorrow or the day after. And I'm speaking as a historian in a county that has a history that goes 5,000 years. I hope that we will not wait for thousands of years, but it's not going to be over in a day or two or a week or two.

SIMON: Khaled Fahmy, who is chair of the history department at the American University of Cairo. Thanks so much for being with us.

FAHMY: My pleasure. Thank you.

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