Last week, over the Eid break, the celebration and over-eating were marred by the news that Ali al-Selmi, the Deputy Prime Minister for Political Affairs, had proposed a new version of the "super-constitutional" principles that would place the military above all other government authorities — including the next parliament and
president. The proposal was met with widespread dissatisfaction, and soon enough al-Selmi backed down and said the offending articles would be modified. We still await a final version of the document, with negotiations made more difficult because many political parties now refuse to even meet him.
Mr. al-Selmi has proven to be a handy lightning rod for the outrageous content of his document, but is he really to blame? He clearly does not represent his party (the Wafd) on this matter, nor a consensus of the secular elite. He's his masters' voice, and his masters wear uniforms and are known by a four-letter acronym. So the question is, did the SCAF really think it could get away with the controversial provisions, or was it trying to sabotage the idea of
super-constitutional principles and perhaps the whole idea of a civilian-led transition?
No doubt, the military is defensive about its money, to the extent that it does not want it discussed or contested and insists it can only be a one-line item in the state budget. Every country in the world has a military budget that includes secret items; after all militaries don't explain in detail what cutting-edge weaponry they’re acquiring or investing in. But what about more mundane items, such as personnel costs, the cost of the many benefits officers receive (healthcare, clubs, vacation homes, etc.), or the profits generated by military-run state enterprises? Even if it doesn’t want these details to get out, surely the SCAF would have predicted the outrage these impositions would generate among a political class that was, over the summer, sharply divided over whether these principles were needed at all.
Perhaps that was the point. This is the umpteenth political crisis the transitional government has faced, and it has generated new fractures among political parties. The Salafists were already adamantly opposed to the very idea of constitutional principles. The Muslim Brothers were clearly split on the issue, with the leadership giving them a
cautious nod even as they warned (rightly) that they could be abused by the military. Secular and moderate Islamist parties that embraced the idea of the principles have now changed their minds, and accuse al-Selmi (and implicitly the SCAF) of being a dishonest interlocutor.
Left at the discussion table are Mohamed ElBaradei and his National Association for Change, who had championed the idea of the principles as a defense against Islamists and the military (and the opportunists who only want to get into its good graces), and those parties for whom opposing the Islamists is the greater priority (such as the Wafd and the Free Egyptians Party).
The constitutional principles were not supposed to be a litmus test about either Islamist or military rule. They were supposed to be a fairly straightforward guarantee that, in religious matters, the next constitution would retain the same recognition of Egypt's majority Muslim identity that has existed for decades, the same protection for religious minorities (including family law according to sect), but with a greater emphasis on human rights and safeguards against an imbalance of power between the branches of government. Aside from the Salafists who like the idea of an explicitly Islamic state, none of this is controversial. The real debate was about the process through
which the principles would be drafted, and whether the SCAF would take advantage of the secular-Islamist divide to impose its own agenda on what was supposed to be a strictly civilian debate.
In the end, the SCAF did as many feared. As a result, it's making Egypt's transition — from these principles to the coming parliamentary elections to, ultimately, the shape of the next constitution — increasingly about a choice: What do you fear least, Islamists or the military? The military (or more specifically, the SCAF) lost some
support after the events of Maspero on 9 October — that much is clear from the defection of many liberal parties in the constitutional debate. But as the elections approach, the Islamists are also becoming scarier.
Polls of Egyptian public opinion suggest that while this country is deeply pious and wants to retain some aspects of religion in public life, the majority want a secular state that does not differentiate between citizens according to their religion. Likewise, this is a fiercely patriotic country where the military holds an important symbolic role, but most Egyptians want a civilian state. In Arabic, the word most commonly used for both civilian and secular is madani — the distinction that could be made by using the word almani (secular in a strict sense) is not often made because the latter word has been tinged with negative associations in Islamist discourse.
So, the majority want a dawla madaniya: a civilian-run state whose institutions are secular. In other words, a civic state. It doesn't have to be about the Islamists vs. the military, and the idea of a basic covenant outlining general principles that will underpin the next constitution — like Mohamed ElBaradei's idea of a bill of rights — did not have to be complicated. Unfortunately, the SCAF is trying to make matters more tortuous than they really are.