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Death at infancy of Egypt’s law, experiment with democracy

By charles Kanjama | July 6th 2013

By Charles Kanjama

The drama of the ongoing crisis in Egypt has held the world enthralled, and raised poignant questions about democracy in Africa and the Arab World. President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s fifth president and the first in decades to emerge from a genuine democratic process, was toppled by his own military three days after his first anniversary in office. Opponents of Morsi, mobilised in their millions in the streets, received the news with rapturous acclaim, while Morsi’s Islamist supporters reacted defiantly at this abortion of democracy.

The African Union (AU) is to be applauded for acting decisively to suspend Egypt for illegal change of government. Egypt’s new Constitution, approved by 64 per cent of voters with a turnout of 33 per cent in a December 2012 referendum was immediately suspended. Egypt’s recently-appointed Chief Justice Adly Mansour, whose new post required him to uphold the Constitution, was then appointed interim president! Ginsburg, Elkins and Milton co-authored the fascinating book, The Endurance of National Constitutions (2009), in which they reflected on the origins, characteristics and consequences of modern written constitutions. Their project analysed the typical lifespan of written constitutions.

Their research findings are depressing. They note: “Constitutions in general do not last very long. The mean lifespan across the world since 1789 (the year the American Constitution took effect) is 17 years. Interpreted as the probability of survival to a certain age, the estimates show that one-half of the Constitutions are likely to be dead by age 18, and by age 50 only 19 per cent will remain. Infant mortality is quite high – approximately seven per cent do not even make it to their second birthday.”

And so Egypt’s brand new Constitution, with some of its wrappings still in place, is already a candidate for the historical junk heap. It lasted six months, about half as long as Egypt’s experiment with Islamist democracy. And yet Egypt is not so far from the current trend: Ginsburg’s study shows that until World War I, the average lifespan of a national constitution was 21 years, but since then has fallen to only 12 years. Of these recent Constitutions, the mean lifespan in Latin America and Africa is 12.4 and 10.2 years respectively, with Europe and Asia enjoying longer average life spans of 32 and 19 years respectively.

So as the world observes the continuing crisis in Egypt, the nations of Africa and the Arab world will naturally be the most troubled at the implications of Egypt’s coup d’etat, for that is what the military overthrow of President Morsi is, absent the window dressing. Can societies fissured by ethnic and religious differences thrive under liberal democracy? Can the divisions that liberal democracy escalates in these societies be managed without reaching the point of existential threat to the society and the state?

An even greater concern to Africa is this: how can the state manage democratic differences and avoid the possibility of those fault lines being used by foreign powers as pressure points against validly elected governments? In Egypt’s case, it is undeniable that the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi was a confluence of domestic and foreign influences. The Persian Gulf states rejoiced in his overthrow, since their monarchies were uncomfortable at the Sunni Islamist democracy espoused by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Israel was likewise content, since they were unhappy with Morsi’s dalliance with the Palestinian Hamas movement. Even Syria and the majority Shia Islam states of Iraq and Iran appeared content at the fall of a perceived rival.

Further abroad, the US, which gives an annual military aid of about $1.5 billion to Egypt was also quite content, since they favoured a more secular democracY. Media reports confirmed that Egypt’s army was in close contact with key American military figures during the entire crisis leading up to Morsi’s overthrow. Other Western nations were muted in their response, refusing to openly condemn the military overthrow or even label it a coup.

And so it is Africa, with its troubled democratic history, which took the lead in condemning Morsi’s overthrow. Maybe because his overthrow exposes the vulnerabilities of our own democracies, which can only ensure stability by yielding at critical moments to foreign influences, that may otherwise exploit domestic opponents to achieve their foreign policy goals.


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