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The army and the constitution

Published in Ahram Online on December 22, 2012

Egypt’s draft constitution fails to achieve a key prerequisite of a democratic future for the country: civilian supervision of the army

“This constitution is a model of world constitutions. In fact, humanity has yet to reach the rights and freedoms enshrined in this constitution.” This is how Hussein Hamed Hassan, a member of the Constituent Assembly, described the draft constitution which is being put to referendum now.

I don’t know which planet Hassan lives on, and I will not compare his constitution with others from around this world. I will only focus on unfolding events on this planet, Earth, specifically one place on it, Egypt, and even more precisely on one issue, the army and its relationship with society.

I am doing this to clarify how the constitution that Hassan wrote is below our expectations, dashed our hopes, disregarded our past, and is a grave danger to our future.

I will not ask if Hassan went to any of the main squares on 25 January or any of the following 18 days. Personally, I was in Tahrir with thousands of other Egyptians seeking a better future and dreaming of a country that is befitting of us.

Time passed and after chanting against Mubarak, we began to chant against the military. At the time, I felt this is true revolution; a revolution that is not targeting any specific person but a revolution that genuinely wants to overthrow the entire regime.

Perhaps because I am a history student, I tried to discover which regime everyone was demanding to overthrow. Was it Mubarak’s regime, the July regime, or the deep patriarchal regime that is embedded in the Egyptian state since Mohamed Ali founded at the beginning of the 19th century?

I will not speak for others since each of us had plenty of reasons to overthrow the regime. Personally, I couldn’t help but feel that I was sometimes chanting against the injustice, oppression and humiliation that thousands of Egyptian farmers suffered when they were drafted into Mohamed Ali’s army. Those wretched souls whose history I studied in much detail, as if I was their contemporary.

I found myself making comparisons between our revolution in Tahrir and the many revolutions that occurred across Egypt from Alexandria to Aswan against the pasha’s unjust policies, then against the policies of his successors and kin. These are revolutions they did not teach us in school, only focusing on indoctrinating us about the history of our revolutions against foreign occupiers.

I also drew parallels between what we did on 28 January 2011 and what our fathers did on 9-10 June 1967. In a unique paradox of history, the masses back then took to the streets objecting to President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to abdicate, demanding that he remains in power, although he had admitted his responsibility for our appalling defeat.

Since I began teaching at university, each time I taught my students about the Naqsa, or setback, I would tear up out of pity for the conditions of the country at the time and grateful that I did not live those difficult years. Over the past two years, however, I was finally able to overcome this complex because I realised that the ruler dealt with his people as if they were children (or sheep) who would feel lost without him and demanded that he stay even though he is the cause of their misery.

Thus, I viewed 28 January 2011 as the day we were finally able to rid ourselves of this burdensome legacy. It is the day when we did what we should have done on 9-10 June: demand the overthrow of the regime.

Over the past two years martyrs have fallen, people were injured, others were blinded, and I hoped that our efforts and sacrifices would be crowned with a constitution that translates our aspirations and dreams into a written document that we cherish and take pride in. That it would be an expression of what we strove to achieve.

Personally, I hoped for a constitution that subjects the military institution to elected civilian supervision. My reading of Egypt’s modern history revealed that without this type of supervision by society of this key institution, there would be no deterrence on what it could do. While it is true that as Egyptians we did not raise the banner of the constitution in the 1870s in an attempt to rein in the army, but to curtail the powers of the khedive, there is no doubt that a strong state headed by the khedive was the outcome of militarising society as a whole since the beginning of the century.

Under Abdel Nasser, however, I am certain that although the balance of power — militarily, diplomatically and economically — was not in our favour, the gravity and depth of the defeat was, primarily, because of the absence of any public supervision of the army institution.

There is no stronger evidence of the lack of this supervision than the well-known story about Abdel Nasser’s meeting with army commanders a few days before the war when he asked about the army’s readiness to fight, and Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer responded: “On my life, Mr president.”

I was looking forward to a constitution that clearly states that the minister of defence would be a civilian, embodying the notion of public supervision of the army. Instead, the constitution added a new article directly stating that the minister of defence must be an officer of the Armed Forces (Article 195).

I hoped that the constitution would stipulate the right of an elected parliament to oversee the army’s budget, but instead the constitution assigned this sensitive duty to the National Defence Council which is membered by a majority of military personnel (Article 197).

I aspired for a constitution that clearly bans the trial of civilians in military courts, but instead Article 198 of the new constitution confirms this is possible.

I wanted the new constitution to clearly state that draft into the army is a national duty for the youth to serve the country and they can only be recruited to defend the homeland, in order to end the farcical practice of sending our drafted recruits to companies, restaurants and utilities run by the army for their own profit. But the constitution does not include any clause to this effect.

When we created a modern army at the beginning of the 19th century we were not able as a society to subject this genie to our will, and failed to curb its domination. In the 20th century, the lack of supervision by society of the army resulted in establishing a corrupt political regime that obstructed the transition to democracy and inflicted upon us a military defeat that is unlike any other in modern history.

After our revolution succeeded, we had hoped that we would write a constitution that avoided these mistakes and corrected these historic blunders for which we paid dearly. Instead, Hassaan and his colleagues in the Constituent Assembly gave us a retarded and oppressive constitution that fails to achieve one of our key and fundamental goals.

Therefore, despite Hassaan’s rant about humanity envying us for this document, we will not back down until we rescind this wretched constitution.

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