Toward a Practical Platform for the Jan. 25th Revolution

Mar 21

Now that the official results of the March 19th referendum are in and the constitutional amendments have been approved, one can confidently say that a new era of competitive politics has dawned in Egypt.  Whether it will lead to a progressive future, or one dominated by narrow sectarian and class politics, however, is a question that will only be answered over the next few years.  In the near term, there will be parliamentary elections, and most analysts seem to assume that these will be dominated by the only two organized political forces in Egypt: the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the National Democratic Party.

Whether this turns out to be the case, however, is only speculation at this point, and the forces in Egypt which desire a radical change in the direction of Egyptian politics still have an important opportunity to influence the course of Egyptian politics.  To do this, however, they must develop a more precise articulation of the future they imagine for Egypt, and how they plan to get there.  This vision must be responsive to both the political and the economic causes of the January 25th Revolution.  I have argued elsewhere that a social democracy along the lines of Sweden represents the best hope for resolving Egypt’s economic and political problems.  To succeed in achieving this goal, however, it is important that revolutionary forces prioritize their political goals.  This requires, as an initial matter, assessing what the Jan. 25th Revolution stands for.

One thing that the Jan. 25th Revolution did not resolve was the secular or religious character of the Egyptian political project or the “true” nature of Egyptian nationalism.  I believe raising this issue at this stage poses grave strategic dangers to successful consolidation of the revolution’s aims.  The Jan. 25th Revolution, in my opinion, coalesced around the slogan “Dignity, Freedom and Social Justice.”  As a practical matter, this means bringing an end to authoritarianism, torture, corruption, gross economic inequalities, and sectarianism.  Arguably, the March 19th constitutional amendments represented a tentative, but nevertheless real, first step toward achieving the first goal.  A nod has also been made toward the second goal with the announced dissolution of the state security services.  The commitment toward reducing the role of corruption in Egyptian public life has been evidenced in several high-profile prosecutions of regime insiders such as Aḥmad ʿIzz and Ḥabīb ʿĀdilī, as well as the freezing of Mubarak family assets.  Nothing, however, has been achieved toward addressing the gross economic inequalities that characterized the last years of Mubarak’s rule over Egypt, and arguably, the reintroduction of meaningful electoral politics has reignited sectarian-based politics as secular, Islamic and Coptic forces trade mutual accusations that each is pursuing narrow ideological interests at the expense of the public good.

The political party that will eventually lead Egypt during this transitional phase is the party that best articulates a vision that is responsive to these five goals, and is best able to communicate these goals to the Egyptian populace at large.  Let us take each of these goals one at a time.

  • Anti-authoritarianism: instituting term limits and reducing the president’s term to four years was a small but necessary first step toward reducing the dictatorial powers of Egypt’s president. So too, the reduction of the president’s ability to declare emergencies is also an important step toward reducing the risk of presidents exercising dictatorial powers. Egyptian law, however, is currently rife with provisions that vest the executive with unreviewable discretionary powers that restrict civil society and pluralist politics.  Any progressive coalition must commit itself to reducing the Egyptian executive’s discretionary powers over civil and political life.  An easy way to do this is to reform the political party law and the law governing non-governmental organizations so that the law presumes that their formation is in the public interest unless the government shows otherwise in a legal proceeding before a neutral judge.Careful consideration will also need to be given to the elections laws themselves, and whether a proportional system will be adopted or a first-past the post system.  Each system has its own advantages, but each would also probably produce radically different results.  A compromise might be to adopt a first-past the post system along with a cumulative voting system whereby voters could rank their preferences among the various candidates, thus producing a result that is more in line with the actual preferences of the electorate relative to the outcome under a winner-take all rule while avoiding the instability that often results from proportional electoral systems.Finally, the crucial question that remains unresolved is whether Egypt should adopt a parliamentary model or simply modify its current presidential system by strengthening parliament relative to the presidency.  My preference is to move quickly to a parliamentary model and transform the presidency into a symbolic office.  Transcending the authoritarianism of the last sixty years requires a clean break from the model of the “strong leader” who is believed necessary to unite the people and defend them from threats.  Moreover, the “strong leader” model also enhances the prospects of corruption, and so to the extent that the executive is subject to greater parliamentary oversight, I believe that Egypt will be better positioned both to achieve its anti-authoritarian goals as well as limit the temptations of corruption.
  • Torture: While the decision to dissolve state security is a small step in the right direction, much more needs to be done in order to assure Egyptians that they enjoy personal security against abuse by the state.  Indeed, there continue to be troubling reports that elements within the armed forces have been arresting civilians, abusing them while in detention and sentencing some to terms of years in military proceedings.  The fact that this abuse of citizens’ rights is ongoing is strong evidence that the anti-torture norm of the Jan. 25th Revolution has not been fully internalized by those elements of the Egyptian government – the police and the army – that are entrusted with the people’s security.It is critical, I believe, for the new Egyptian government to confront the past openly, and I believe that South Africa provides a useful model for Egyptians to consider: a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  It is impractical to believe that Egypt could imprison all members of the police who were engaged in illegality during the Mubarak years; moreover, dismissal of all former officers would create a substantial risk that previous regime elements could form a disgruntled force that could work actively to subvert the new order.  It may be possible, through the mechanism of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, however, to rehabilitate them by forcing them to confront their history of illegality and confess it, in the hope that they will thereby internalize the new norms of the Egyptian state.  Participation in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would of course be a condition for continued employment, and testimony would be given under oath so that perjury could be prosecuted.Such a commission would also provide an important forum for the victims of torture and police abuse to confront their tormentors and provide a public basis for accountability and compensation to the countless Egyptian victims of torture and abuse.  Although Egyptian law already provides that torture is illegal, Egyptian law should also be supplemented by providing a civil remedy that will allow victims of torture and police abuse to sue the perpetrators directly and attain prompt and adequate compensation.
  • Corruption: The international civil society organization, Transparency International, only recently completed a very thorough study of Egypt’s anti-corruption laws.  As pointed out by that study, while Egypt’s anti-corruption laws, from a substantive perspective, were fairly adequate, they were consistently undermined by the fact that the executive’s permission was required at all crucial investigative and enforcement junctures.  This should change so that powers to investigate and enforce violations of Egypt’s anti-corruption laws are vested in an independent agency.Despite the general adequacy of Egypt’s anti-corruption laws, they could nevertheless be substantively improved.  For example, greater protections should be given whistleblowers so that only knowingly false reports of corruption are subject to prosecution or discipline.  In addition asset disclosure forms which public officials are currently required to file upon assuming or retaining office should be publicly available, at least with respect to the filings of the president, vice-president, ministers and members of parliament, and the members of their family.
  • Social justice: I have already proposed that Egypt move toward a model of social democracy as practiced by developed countries such as Sweden. A more practical example of emulation might be a developing country like Brazil under the leadership of its previous president, Luiz Lula de Silva, who successfully led Brazil both to increased rates of growth and improved social justice during his 8-year tenure as president.  Brazil, like Egypt, is trying to establish a stable democracy after years of military rule, and like Brazil, it faces serious problems of economic inequality.  President Lula, as he is popularly known, encouraged progressive economic policies focused on increasing investment in public goods such as public education and health care while at the same time encouraging market reforms to make Brazil’s economy more efficient.Egypt will not be able to achieve social justice unless it also achieves sustained levels of high economic growth.  This means that the new government must adopt policies that improve dramatically the efficiency of the Egyptian economy.  In the short run, this can be accomplished by reducing corruption.  In the long run, this will require greatly increased investments in the capacities of the Egyptian people through substantially increased public investments in education and health.  A population that is sick and uneducated cannot be economically productive.Improving the average productivity of the Egyptian worker must be an immediate priority of the new government.  To do this, however, Egypt must continue to attract substantial amounts of long-term foreign investment, probably along the lines of $20 billion annually, to succeed in financing a successful democratic transition.  The good news is that Egypt, if it reduces corruption and moves successfully toward a parliamentary democracy, is likely to attract substantial amounts of foreign direct investment.  Indeed, global investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and Citigroup have largely viewed the Jan. 25th Revolution as a positive long-term development for the Egyptian economy.

    One easy way to increase foreign investment is to encourage the almost 8 million Egyptians living outside of Egypt, many of whom are highly successful, to increase their investments in Egypt.  An easy way to do this would be for Egyptian banks to open branches in cities abroad where Egyptians live in large numbers and encourage them to purchase certificates of deposit denominated in Egyptian pounds. Egypt also has the capacity to borrow more funds in the international market, provided that it can demonstrate greater efficiency in collecting taxes and deploying its tax revenues and borrowed funds successfully to improve the economy’s long-term performance rather than simply to fund increased consumption subsidies.

    The new government should strive to collect taxes in an amount that equals 20% of Egypt’s GDP.  Tax revenue currently equals approximately 15% of GDP.  If the target of 20% were reached, based on Egypt’s 2010 GDP of $210 billion, the national budget could be increased by $10 billion.  Such a sum could be used to make substantial investments in Egypt’s decaying public education and health systems, and thus demonstrate to foreign investors the seriousness of the new government in allocating sufficient resources to assure the long-term growth and stability of the Egyptian economy.

  • Sectarianism: One of the important achievements of the Jan. 25th Revolution was its success in bringing together Egyptians of all religious backgrounds, Muslims, Copts and secular Egyptians from both religious communities.  With the departure of Mubarak, however, the spectre of sectarianism has returned.  Although transcending sectarian identity in favour of an inclusive national identity was without doubt a central aspiration of the Jan. 25th Revolution, there does not appear to be a clear consensus on how that goal is to be achieved.Many Muslims in Egypt believe that sectarianism can be solved if the already existing values of equality and non-discrimination are more steadfastly adhered to, while many secular intellectuals and Coptic voices have argued that only repealing Article 2 of the constitution – the article which states that Arabic is the official language of the state, that Islam is its religion and that the Shariʿa is the principal source of its legislation – will guarantee for Egyptians a non-sectarian future.  I have argued in a previous article that from the perspective of constitutional theory, Article 2 is at best awkward: the constitution is promulgated in the name of the Egyptian people, but the Egyptian people as such do not have a religion.  This is implicit in the guarantee of religious freedom the Egyptian constitution provides all Egyptian citizens.  Accordingly, it is not clear why the Egyptian state – which is the representative of the Egyptian people who, from the constitutional perspective, do not have a religion – should make these kinds of religious commitments.On the other hand, from a prudential perspective, it seems unwise at this time to raise the subject of Article 2, especially in light of the Supreme Constitutional Court’s jurisprudence interpreting Article 2.  Essentially, the Supreme Constitutional Court has understood Article 2 to act as a limit on the lawmaking powers of the Egyptian state, so that it is prohibited from exercising those powers to promulgate rules that contradict the universally valid principles of Islamic law.  While I have some objections to this formulation in its details, as a practical matter this means that according to the Supreme Constitutional Court, the Egyptian government remains free to exercise its lawmaking powers independently of the opinions of religious scholars, provided it does so within the bounds of universally recognized principles of Islamic law.  In short Article 2 is not responsible for the oppression and injustice currently facing most Egyptians.

    In addition, the Supreme Constitutional Court has refused to make Article 2 a source of supra-constitutional norms.  In other words, Article 2 does not function in a manner similar to the Supremacy Clause of the United States so that all rules not derived from the teachings of Islamic law are ipso facto void, or conversely, that the Egyptian state can adopt any historical rule of Islamic law in reliance on Article 2.  Instead, the Supreme Constitutional Court has held that Article 2 must be interpreted in light of the constitution’s other commitments, so that the liberal norms of the constitution also limit the kinds of rules that can be adopted from Islamic law. Accordingly, historical norms of the Shariʿa that discriminated against non-Muslims with respect to taxation or testimony, for example, could not become a part of modern Egyptian law pursuant to the authority of Article 2.  Effectively, the Supreme Constitutional Court’s approach toward the role of Islamic law in modern Egyptian law is to adopt a policy of reconciliation between Islamic law as a historical system of law and Egypt’s modern commitments in its constitution and international human rights norms.

    The main criticism of Article 2, then, is that it communicates a message to non-Muslims that they are not entitled to the same symbolic dignity as that enjoyed by Muslims.  One way to resolve this symbolic problem is perhaps to amend Article 2 to include a provision which makes clear that the Shari’a is the principal source of Egyptian legislation to the extent that such norms do not otherwise violate other provisions of the Egyptian constitution or universally accepted human rights norms.  More substantively, however, entrenching the value of non-sectarianism requires more than the amendment of Article 2.  It requires changes to substantive Egyptian law, such as, revising the laws governing the building of houses of worship so that Muslims and non-Muslims have equal rights to erect churches and mosques; revising family law so that a civil family law exists to avoid the sectarian tension that inevitably results when an Egyptian converts to another religion simply in order to obtain a legal advantage; removing all religious qualifications for public office; and, most importantly, it requires the introduction of an effective private remedy for individual Egyptian citizens, whether Muslim or Christian, who have suffered sectarian discrimination, whether in the workforce, the provision of government services, or education. Only when it becomes clear to all Egyptians that the state is committed to enforcing equality norms vigorously will the threat of sectarianism begin to recede.

I don’t believe any objective analyst could look at these five policy goals and describe them as modest.  Yet, Egypt must make substantial progress toward achieving them if it is to achieve long-term political stability and economic prosperity.  Many Jan. 25 activists, however, might very well be disappointed to the extent they believe that this agenda promises too little, especially in terms of constitutional reform.  To them, I argue that a realistic reform program must begin from an accurate political, social and economic assessment of where Egyptian society is today; it cannot begin from an imaginary point in time and space where we hope it will be some day in the future.  At least a third of Egyptians are illiterate; almost half live below or just above the poverty level; unemployment is at crisis levels; Hepatitis C, including related kidney and liver disease, is endemic among Egyptians, producing crushing health care costs for individual Egyptians as well as the government; and, the vast majority of Egyptians have no real experience with self-government.

Achieving progress toward these five goals is a prerequisite for any future progress in achieving liberal constitutional reform.  The results of the March 19th Referendum confirmed the vast discrepancies that exist in the level of political consciousness between the major cities and the countryside, and in light of this the party of the Jan. 25th Revolution will face great challenges in communicating even these five policy goals to the majority of Egyptians.  By focusing on how it intends to adopt progressive social and economic policies that will benefit the least well-off in Egypt, however, it should be able to broaden its popular base.  An excessive focus on achieving a perfect liberal constitution will only be a distraction at this time, and in a worst case scenario, could unintentionally lead to the return of the ancien regime.   Constitutional reform can be deferred, while these five areas of policy reform cannot. Accordingly, I hope that, whatever party is formed to represent the Jan. 25th Revolution, it returns its focus to these concrete issues rather than the more abstract questions of constitutional reform which, if the results of the March 19th Referendum are to be taken as an indication, do not appear to motivate the majority of Egyptian citizens.


Facebook comments:


  1. I think the most important thing we, i.e., Egyptians outside of Egypt, can do is try to provide a good example of civil discourse by showing how it is possible to work together with people of different religions/ideologies/commitments toward a common political goal of a shared political space that respects the rights of all.

  2. Raafat S. Toss /

    Thank you for this. I’ve posted and re-posted on FB.

    As a Coptic-American attorney, I appreciate your thoughts, work, and rationale. I would love to offer my aid in any way you deem fit. The Coptic community in the US and Canada is large and I’d like to be able to cooperate with secularists (both Muslim and Coptic) in securing Egypt’s future.

    Best, Raafat


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