Speaking on the occasion of October 6th, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi ended the weeks-long debate about amending the Constitution, declaring that it’s not on the table at the current time. But as the campaign to change the charter abates, we shouldn’t stop there. There’s an urgent need to continue the dialogue over the 2014 Constitution and its future and restore its standing.
The current Constitution is neither perfect, nor the best in the world, despite claims heard during the referendum. Wanting to change the Constitution is not, per se, wrong or a crime. In fact, constitutional experts often criticise constitutions that are too rigid, meaning they contain no mechanisms to change them, because in times of tension they leads a society to either ignore or rebel against them.
However, what was worrying about the recent demands to amend the Constitution is that they ignored the fact that such Constitution garnered overwhelming popular support because it embodied the hopes and ambitions of the Egyptian people for a broad national consensus to build a civil, democratic, just state governed by the law.
Amending the Constitution now would have meant retreating from this consensus and opening the door to new bargaining over the rights and liberties it upholds.
But it's not enough to simply take amendments off the table. More important is restoring respect for the Constitution, complying with its provisions, and reclaiming the values it embodies, which have been frequently disregarded since it entered into force last year, especially on the legislative front.
It's true that protecting the Constitution from laws that contravene its provisions is the job of the Supreme Constitutional Court, but it’s not that Court's job alone.
Society also bears responsibility. The Constitutional Court is exclusively responsible for judicial review of the Constitution meaning that only the Court can overturn laws that violate it. It’s an important role that must not be tampered with.
But society and shapers of public opinion also play a role, just as they do in all other aspects of social organisation. After all, the criminal courts have the exclusive power to sentence those who steal, kill, or rape, but that doesn’t mean that society—individuals, organisations, parties, and the media—have no role in combatting theft, murder, or rape. Society is obligated to demand protection from crime, monitor it, report it, protest when it is covered up, and turn to parliamentary representatives if laws deterring crime need to be amended.
The same is true of the Constitution. The Constitutional Court may overturn unconstitutional laws, but that doesn’t mean that civic and political institutions should just wait silently for these rulings. They can raise awareness, comment, object, propose alternatives, and demonstrate respect for the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution.
And this the crux of the issue: does society really believe the Constitution is necessary and binding in all cases and circumstances? Or does it see it as a fetter on the state and its agencies that can be disregarded if security and economic conditions demand it?
The prevailing public and media discourse posits an opposition between the Constitution and law, on one hand, and security and stability, on the other. This misconception leads people to believe that abandoning the Constitution or relaxing standards of justice are prerequisites for security.
But in reality the Constitution does not restrain only the ruler and executive; it restrains everyone, and protects everyone. And yes, the constitution protects citizens’ rights against state authority, but it also protects the economic system, combats corruption, upholds minority rights, preserves women’s status, protects persons with disabilities, safeguards children’s needs, preserves state institutions, the armed forces, and regulatory agencies, supports social peace and protects the environment.
So when the Constitution is disregarded, it not only erodes the values of justice and law in society, it also undermines its chances for progress, development, security and stability.
Reclaiming the Constitution is a battle that should be joined by all those who want stability for Egypt and security, safety, and economic development for Egyptians. We must all unite not only to counter any hasty amendments to the Constitution, but to restore its respect and stature.
The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.