Middle East

Egyptians Poised To Vote On Controversial New Constitution

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Egyptians are preparing to vote on a new constitution, again. When the last constitution was approved, President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was in power. He was ousted in July. The latest constitution was drafted by the military-backed government that ousted Morsi. Nathan Brown, who studies constitutionalism and rule of law in the Arab world, talks to Robert Siegel about what's at stake in the process, and the criticism the draft constitution has received. Brown is a professor at George Washington University and a scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Egyptians are yet again poised to vote on a new constitution. Just a year ago, they were doing the same thing. At that time, it was a constitution backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and drafted under the now deposed president, Mohammed Morsi. This time, it's a constitution drafted by the military-backed government that ousted and jailed Morsi and also the Brotherhood's leaders.

Details of the draft text were recently made public and joining me to talk about it is professor Nathan Brown of George Washington University who studies constitutionalism and the rule of law in the Arab world. Welcome to the program.

NATHAN BROWN: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: Let's start with what was wrong with the old constitution. Why is Egypt getting a new one?

BROWN: Well, the main thing that was wrong with the old constitution was who wrote it. It was written by an assembly that was dominated by Islamists - the Muslim Brotherhood and some others - and it never really got legitimacy with the rest of the population. So it wasn't necessarily so much the content of the document. There were some criticisms of that, but much more that it seemed to be put in place by a government that a lot of Egyptians came to reject.

SIEGEL: You've written that the big winners of this new constitutional draft are the very institutions that overturned the Morsi government. Who are those institutions and what do they get?

BROWN: Well, there's a military, there's a security apparatus and to some extent to the judiciary as well, and other parts of the state apparatus, like the religious establishment. What a lot of these institutions wanted was autonomy. They looked at Egyptian politics over the last few years and said that we can't trust this. They put up rulers we don't like or they get involved in our kinds of affairs and start telling us what to do.

So all these institutions essentially got guarantees that they would be insulated from civilian politics. The military gets to select its own minister of defense for two presidential terms. The police get a police council that gets to review any law that affects the police. The judiciary gets some guarantees of independence. The head of the religious establishment cannot be fired and so on.

SIEGEL: You say one way of looking at that is it's insulation from domestic politics, another way is being freed from any accountability to the people.

BROWN: That's exactly the case. I mean, what these institutions all see themselves as being is responsible for the entire Egyptian nation, but they don't want to be accountable to the day to day politics. So they are beyond any mechanisms of democratic accountability in this constitution.

SIEGEL: There's an article, Article 74, I gather, which prohibits political parties formed on a religious basis. What is that supposed to do?

BROWN: Well, we'll find out. It's not clear what it's supposed to do. Obviously, you've got some political parties that look to many observers like they're religious political parties. The Muslim Brotherhood's a political party, the Freedom and Justice party, which is suppressed but still technically legal. There is a Selafi, an Islamist political party called the Nour Party.

And the question is whether somebody will now try to take this constitutional provision and move against these parties. And the constitution says that a political party that's founded can only be dissolved by a court order. So my guess is the day after this constitution is approved, you'll have people filing lawsuits trying to drive these parties out of legal existence.

Whether they'll succeed or not, we don't know.

SIEGEL: You know, we Americans tend to be at least skeptical about constitutions whose articles number in the hundreds or the dozens, even. How significant is a constitution to Egyptians? I mean, does it hold up? Do people live up to the guarantees that are on paper over the years?

BROWN: Well, I think it is true that it is a very loquacious document but an awful lot of those clauses defer their main subject to ordinary legislation. A lot of freedoms are there that are guaranteed, but they say, we'll work out the details when we actually write the law. So we won't know what this constitution means fully until we have a parliament that's sitting down and writing laws to implement its provisions.

SIEGEL: Professor Brown, thank you very much for talking with us.

BROWN: Okay. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: That's professor Nathan Brown of George Washington University, talking about the new draft constitution in Egypt.

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