If a constitution is to be a living document and achieve constitutionalism, it must have the consensus of, if not all the citizens, about 90% of the population. The tyranny of numbers must not be used to engineer a new constitution for any country, especially countries undergoing tenuous and uncertain political transition, writes Said Adejumobi.
“The strength of democracy is not about majority rule, but the protection of minority rights”
The above is my creed about democratic practice. The majoritarian character of democracy, which many people and theories emphasise, is its major weakness. When democracy is constructed on a majoritarian platform, it becomes a tyranny of numbers, and a basis of social oppression of the many over the few.
As such, my parameter for assessing a good and resilient democratic system is the extent to which the weak and vulnerable in society are protected, and the voiceless given expression in spite of their deficit in numbers. This is why Western liberal democracy is losing value and credibility as it reduces the control and management of power to the arithmetic of numbers. This is what is currently unfolding in Egypt which I will return to later in this piece.
My intent in this article is twofold. The first is to interrogate the media narratives (defined mostly by the Western media) on the “Arab Spring”, which has been christened a “revolution” and to underscore the intricate dynamics and contradictions of that process as it relates specifically to Egypt.
The second is to probe the politics of Egypt’s draft constitution, which was approved by over 60% of the people in a referendum on 15 December 2012. This approval gives President Mohammed Morsi the required endorsement to proceed with his reforms as he sees fit.
The media narratives on the political developments in North Africa generally have qualified them as a revolution driven by young people and facilitated by “Facebook” and the new social media. The events at Tahir Square in Cairo provide a classic case and perhaps the peak of the resistance. In that sense, the Western media are asking the question: “When will sub-Saharan Africa witness the same?”
I am quite cautious in regarding the events which started in Tunisia in December 2010 as a “revolution”. In a limited way, I regard it as a process of political transition in shaking off authoritarian regimes in search of a democratic order. It is not particularly different from what took place in sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1990s, when students, market women, and the lumpen proletariat thronged the streets to demand political changes and resist authoritarian rule. It might have been different in form and intensity, but not in content and outcome.
As a student of politics, my understanding of a revolution is when there is a systemic rupture, in which class and power relations shift radically and a new social order emerges in society. In none of the North African countries did this happen, including Egypt. Dictators were ousted, but the ruling class was not.
In Egypt for example, the military remains a powerful political force. The Islamic Brotherhood, which now holds sway in many countries, is an entrenched political force, and part of the established political order in those countries. However, the Islamic Brotherhood hitherto was largely vilified and criminalised by the ancient regimes, partly at the instance of the West. The talk of a revolution therefore seems to me a misnomer. It is an attempt to distort and exaggerate the political events and dynamics in those countries.
The second narrative about the changes in those countries, especially in Egypt, is to create a binary opposition between those referred to by the Western media as “Islamists” and “democrats”.
The “Islamists” are tainted as “reactionary forces” who are against secularism and seek to impose Islam on the countries. The “democrats” are the NGOs and civil rights groups, who want a Western style democratic system. The former is painted as trying to “hijack” the “revolution”; the latter is the real “torchbearer” of the “revolution”. This distinction is superfluous and perverse, while the narrative is jaundiced and unhelpful. The Islamic Brotherhood was a major part of the resistance movement and contributed in no small measure to ousting political dictatorship in Egypt, as elsewhere in the region.
The Islamic Brotherhood is more than a political party; it is a social movement grounded in the social fabric of the Egyptian society, as in many other North African countries. It is a group that provides social protection and material support for its members, an area where the state often fails. This is why it survived former President Hosni Mubarak, in spite of the draconian measures against it.
As such, the Islamic Brotherhood is part of the democratic narrative of Egypt, and not a force against it. What is happening now is a divergence in terms of the vision of the future, which is natural in any transition process. Political transitions are contested political projects; they are filled with “land-mines” and “ambushes” and replete with differing perspectives of social reality and future aspirations. This does not delegitimise any group.
The link between the state and religion has been an enduring issue for many societies, including Western ones. Turkey was not admitted to the EU, perhaps in reality, due to what one European official described as Turkey not having the European culture. That culture is simply the Christian culture. In many European countries, Christian parties exist and are vying for political power. The goal of many of them is to restore Christian values in state culture and management.
In Britain, the Church of England has a direct relationship with the state. The British monarch holds the constitutional title of the supreme governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith, while the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church, is appointed by the prime minister on behalf of the Queen.
In the USA, the Republican party prides itself as the party of conservative Christian values, hence, issues of abortion, same sex marriage, and others, frowned upon by the Christian religion, are largely opposed. These are raging issues of political import in the USA. Yet, parties and groups preaching and standing for those values are not referred to as “Christianists”, in the same way that those in Egypt are called “Islamists”. The narrative is biased and distorting!
Back to the contemporary issue in Egypt: President Morsi and the Islamic Brotherhood must not make the constitution-making process a winner takes all game. This is the weakness of liberal democratic politics. The constitution is too important to be subjected to a majoritarian rule.
It may be true that the majority of the population is of the Islamic faith, hence the need to entrench provisions that provide for their wishes and aspirations in the constitution, but it is also true that the interests of the minority must be well protected. The vitality and durability of Egypt’s nascent democratic experiment will depend on this.
President Morsi must give dissenting voices on the draft constitution another opportunity to influence the final version. A constitution, if it is to be a living document and achieve constitutionalism, must have minimum consensus of, if not all the citizens, but about 90% of the population. The tyranny of numbers must not be used to engineer a new constitution for any country, especially countries undergoing tenuous and uncertain political transition.