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Al Shorouk, Egypt

Washington and Egypt’s New Constitution

By Mohammed Al Minshawi

Since Washington is usually harshly critical of the new Islamist leaders in Egypt, its near complete silence about the new constitution raises important questions.

Translated By Melissa Gallo

1 January 2013

Edited by Hana Livingston

Egypt - Al Shorouk - Original Article (Arabic)

The year 2012 began with the most serious crisis in Washington-Cairo relations since the fall of the former Egyptian regime. A few days earlier, Egyptian security forces had stormed the headquarters of American organizations.

The crisis intensified when Egyptian officials decided to prevent American workers from traveling due to continuing investigations into American organizations operating in Egypt. Now, this same year is ending on the heels of the crisis of the new Egyptian constitution, which did not upset Washington, although some Egyptian political forces had hoped for and requested American involvement.

The U.S. administration was very alarmed by President Mohammed Morsi’s constitutional declaration on Nov. 22, which caused a severe political crisis in Egypt. However, Washington showed no uneasiness about the process of drafting the new constitution, despite all the political tension it has caused and continues to cause in Egypt.

Washington believes that Morsi's declaration, which granted him dictatorial powers without oversight or accountability in the new Egypt, is an act deserving of strong condemnation. But there were disagreements within the U.S. administration on what it should do regarding the developments of the last few weeks about the referendum on Egypt’s constitution. The administration understands the difficulty of criticizing a free, popular referendum and its final results.

Hours after the official announcement of the results, the U.S. State Department released an official statement urging all sides in Egypt to strengthen political dialogue. A State Department spokesperson stated, "We have consistently supported the principle that democracy requires much more than simple majority rule. It requires protecting the rights and building the institutions that make democracy meaningful and durable." Most importantly, the statement invited all sides to "re-commit themselves to condemn and prevent violence."

About a month ago, immediately after the details of the constitutional declaration were announced, Washington hurried to issue a strong statement, saying, "The decisions and declarations announced on Nov. 22 raise concerns for many Egyptians and for the international community." The statement indicated that "one of the aspirations of the revolution was to ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution. The current constitutional vacuum in Egypt can only be resolved by the adoption of a constitution that includes checks and balances, and respects fundamental freedoms, individual rights and the rule of law consistent with Egypt's international commitments."

Washington took a neutral stance concerning the new Egyptian constitution. The State Department stressed that the constitution is an Egyptian matter and Egyptians make decisions about their own affairs. They also emphasized that the U.S. supports Egypt’s right to a constitution and government that reflect the will of the people and respect ethnic and religious minorities — principles they say are desired in Egypt.

But since Washington is usually harshly critical of the new Islamist leaders in Egypt, its near complete silence raises important questions.

The American media, for its part, was deeply divided on the new constitution. Most were convinced that it would have the support of the majority of Egyptians, but that the battle of the constitution would not be the last in Egypt’s current transitional phase and would raise other points of conflict in the near future. According to the New York Times, this is because the document was written hastily and left many unresolved issues. American columnist Thomas Friedman advised Morsi to play a unifying role, like Nelson Mandela, which Morsi has not done so far. Friedman thinks a country that is over 5,000 years old need not draft a constitution quickly. He indicated that the Constituent Assembly’s rush to write the document caused the Islamist forces to lose many votes.

It has been nearly two years since the popular revolution that toppled the dictatorial regime, after which Egypt fell under the rule of a military council lacking basic political abilities and any imagination. All of this contributed significantly to planting the seeds of the instability from which Egypt now suffers. Washington’s leaders realize this and have so far avoided blaming Morsi, the elected Egyptian president, for not making more efforts to unite divided political forces. Washington has been content to say, “President Morsi, as the democratically elected leader of Egypt, has a special responsibility to move forward in a way that recognizes the urgent need to bridge divisions.”

The U.S. administration is well aware of the extreme chasm of polarization between Islamist forces and the rest of the political currents in Egypt. It also knows the value and strength of elections: They are the most important pillar in building a stable, democratic system, as long as they are free, fair and frequent. The U.S. has no real criticisms of the new Egyptian constitution, after its approval rating was more than 60 percent.

Washington fully understands that the Islamist forces in Egypt have gotten where they are now through the ballot box, and that the ballot box is the only way to remove them from power. Do the Egyptian forces that oppose the Islamist rulers also understand this simple yet difficult equation?



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