The most important foreign event in the final days of 2012 was the ramming through of Egypt’s new, Sharia-based constitution by President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies. The cultural, demographic and geographic center of the Arab world is now set to become an Islamic Republic. Egypt’s transformation, after 60 years of secularist officers’ dabbling in modernization, will have major consequences for the Greater Middle East.
Only one-third of Egypt’s eligible voters turned out for the two-stage referendum (December 15 and 22), with 64 percent supporting the draft constitution which was swiftly signed into law by Morsi on December 26. The vote was marred by a host of irregularities, but the demands for a full inquiry have been ignored. The Brotherhood’s victory at parliamentary elections in two months’ time now seems a foregone conclusion.
THE NEW CONSTITUTION consists of an introduction, an 11-part preamble and 236 articles. The 1971 Egyptian constitution also contained a vague reference to the Sharia, but the new one goes much further. Islamic Shariah is now elevated to “the principal source of legislation,” and its principles are defined in Article 219 as “general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence, and credible sources accepted in Sunni doctrines and by the larger community.”
The articles dealing with Sharia in the constitution “are very complicated and no one understands them but Islamic scholars,” according to Rafaat Fouda, a law professor at Cairo University. The constitution’s drafters resolved this problem in Article Four, by giving Muslim clerics at al-Azhar University the task of deciding whether Egypt’s laws are Sharia-compliant. Al-Azhar is a bastion of Islamic orthodoxy, and its senior scholars are now authorized to decide on matters of conduct, speech, lifestyle and religion. The manner in which they may act was revealed last June 20 by Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb when he presented The Al-Azhar Document, an 11-point program addressing Egypt’s political future. Al-Tayeb frames democracy as “the modern formula for the Islamic precept of shura (consultation).” He accordingly supports “the people’s representatives endowed with the power of legislation in accordance with the precepts of true Islam.”
It is in this context that the deliberate vagueness of some articles of the new constitution may be more readily understood, e.g. Article 10, which empowers the government to “preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family, its cohesion and stability and to protect its moral values, all as regulated by law.” The state shall “enable the reconciliation between the duties of a woman toward her family and her work.” Unlike its 1971 predecessor, the constitution does not specifically forbid discrimination against women. Article 11 is also of concern to women. It stipulates that the state should preserve ethics and values, including religious values. Analysts say that such vague wording could be used as a “gateway to imposing garb or freedom restrictions or undoing or abolishing previously enacted laws that allowed women the right to divorce; an age limit on marriage for young girls is also absent.”
The draft guarantees freedom of expression, creativity, assembly etc, but it says those rights “must be practiced in a manner not conflicting with” principles of Shariah or the morals of the family. There is also a ban on insulting “religious messengers and prophets,” which has been used in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to impose strict censorship and policing of the Internet. Christians and Jews are free to practice their rites and establish places of worship, but the new constitution hedges those rights on the condition they do not “violate public order”—another catchall phrase used in the past to prevent the reconstruction or building of churches.
“What has happened in Egypt is an irony of Shakespearean proportion: the jailers are now the prisoners, and the prisoners are now the jailers,” Ayman Nassar commented from Cairo for the BBC. Whereas the old era of the Mubarak regime used to blatantly fake election results, he wrote, the new regime is preying on the illiterate and uneducated: their opinion is easily swayed, whether it be by the preacher at their mosque or the one distributing foodstuffs to them, leading them to believe it was their religious duty to vote in favor of the new constitution: “The persistent and recurring argument against any that seek to deny MB rule is: why are you against Sharia if you are Muslim? Why are you against Islam? … The majority claiming to support the constitution on TV are illiterate and claim they support Islam, further proving the point that they have no idea what machinations exist within the apparently subtle texts of the constitution.”
Last November Morsi issued a decree granting himself unprecedented authority, including immunity to any judicial oversight. His announcement that he could pass any law and take any measure that “advances the Revolution” was revolutionary in itself. It made Mubarak and his two predecessors, Sadat and Nasser, look like scrupulous constitutionalists. It was the Islamist equivalent of the Reich Chancellor’s Enabling Act passed in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire. Secure in the knowledge that the new constitution would be firmly based on Sharia and duly enacted by hook or by crook, Morsi disingenuously claimed that his dictatorial new powers would be temporary, “until a new constitution is approved.” That approval was marred by violence, mass intimidation of Christians and secularists, and many irregularities, but nothing can be done. The protests sparked by Morsi’s decree brought hundreds of thousands of mainly young Egyptians back to Tahrir Square and to the streets of Alexandria and other cities, but this time the regime weathered the storm. The State Department helped by releasing a supine statement urging “all Egyptians to resolve their differences… peacefully and through democratic dialogue.”
Morsi was able to act because in the preceding months the United States had exerted strong pressure on Egypt’s generals not to challenge his assumption of full executive authority. The Administration pretended not to take note of the fact that he came to power because the Muslim Brotherhood broke its pledge to stay out of the presidential race. His first step was to use that authority to reconvene the constitutional assembly previously declared illegal by the courts because it was packed with the Muslim Brotherhood deputies posing as independents.
The game is now over. The rhetoric and tools of “democracy” were adroitly used by the Muslim Brotherhood in line with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s dictum that “democracy is a train—you can get off when you reach your destination.” The result is the kind of Egypt very different from what the Obama Administration and its media cohorts had heralded while supporting Morsi’s rise. Lest we forget, last July Hillary Clinton assured him that the United States was doing all it could to “support the democratically elected government and to help make it a success in delivering results for the people of Egypt.” The “results” now include a constitution that makes mockery of Clinton’s feminist slogans.
The theoretical foundation for what Morsi and his team are trying to achieve was provided by Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), the ideologue of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who was eventually executed by the Nasser regime. Since all non-Islamic states were illegitimate, Qutb wrote, a self-defining Islamic “vanguard”—obviously inspired by the early Bolshevik model—is needed to wage jihad against them. The Muslim Brotherhood, like the Bolsheviks of yore, explicitly denies the legitimacy of any form of social, political, or cultural organization other than itself. Both were happy to use the tools and rhetoric of “democracy” to attain their objectives.
“Even if exporting democracy could be developed into a workable scenario, the end result would be detrimental to U.S. security: Mubaraq would be swept from power and the Muslim Brotherhood would turn Egypt into an Islamic Republic,” I wrote in Defeating Jihad almost seven years ago. “The maturity and consciousness of voters heralds that Egypt has set on a path of democracy with no return,” Morsi declared in a TV address to the nation on December 27. No return, indeed.