An Obituary for the Egyptian Constitution, Dec. 26, 2012-July 3, 2013

Egypt’s constitution died today, following a brief and tortured tenure as the fundamental law of the world’s most populous Arab country. The decision to remove life support was taken -- as had been expected -- by the nation’s military establishment. Death was announced soon afterwards.

The briefness of its time on Earth, a mere 190 days, should not obscure its significance; quite the opposite, in fact. Its story offers timeless lessons on the dangers of majoritarian excess and the importance of sustainable government: equal parts tragedy and morality tale.

The Egyptian constitution’s truncated existence likewise meant that many of its promised institutions remained just that: promises. The legislative functions stipulated by the document were never established, and the national judiciary never warmed to it. Who knows what the constitution might have looked like had it ever reached maturity? Could subsequent amendments have made it legitimate in the eyes of the many Egyptians who scorned it? We shall never know.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, Egypt’s constitution was given life under dubious ethical circumstances: a display of rote majoritarianism that left opposition parties out in the cold. Perhaps this move seemed necessary at the time, sacrificing consensus for the sake of a grand experiment in Islamic Democracy.” Yet this original sin eventually proved its undoing, and like Shelley’s tragic figure, the mob rose against it.

That they did so, despite the democratic referendum that had ratified it so soon before, speaks volumes. The Egyptian constitution, as designed, was highly representative of the views and desires of Egypt’s Islamist faction -- those best mobilized and electorally dominant at the time of its creation -- but at the cost of an extreme disconnect with much of the Egyptian population. Similarly, the constitution’s deafening silence on protections for Egyptian women or the country’s Christian minority (between the two an actual majority of the population) did little to make the experiment more palatable to the Egyptian public or the international community.

Some of the constitution’s more controversial provisions, such as an article defining “the principles of Islamic law” as the the main source of legislation, or another elevating the role of the “principles of sharia” within national jurisprudence, were at first given a pass by some for the sake of national stability -- only to grate all the more once that promised stability failed to materialize. In the eyes of many, the Egyptian constitution was always an extension of the ruling Freedom and Justice Party, not something representative of the population writ large. And when perceptions of corruption and mismanagement, of favoritism towards allies and heavy-handedness towards critics, led many Egyptians -- even among the government's Islamist base -- to abandon the party, the constitution’s fate was sealed. It could not outlive the tenure of its creators.

The Egyptian constitution is survived by many Muslim Brothers, among them Mohamed Morsy (retired), whose vaunted ambitions for the document likely contributed to its chronic wasting and ultimate collapse. It is also survived by 85 million Egyptians: some euphoric, others indignant, but all of them deeply uncertain about the path that lies ahead.

Whether Egyptian democracy may yet survive the demise of the constitution is, as of now, unknown. Military seizures of state, particularly coming so soon after previous armed interventions, rarely prove conducive to healthy democracy. That said, neither do systems where elected authoritarians divide their own people into political haves and have-nots: a worryingly common state of affairs in the 21st century. If the Egyptian people can draw corresponding lessons from the ephemeral existence of their deceased constitution, then perhaps its brief and tortured life will not have been in vain.

Rest in peace.



Where are the Venezuelan protesters?

In the last few weeks, Latin America observers have been taken by surprise upon seeing millions of Brazilians marching in the streets demanding change. Long accustomed to hearing about the "Brazilian miracle," Venezuelans looked to their Southern neighbors airing their grievances and wondered: "Why not us?" After all, if Brazilians -- with their sophisticated democracy and their country seemingly on the uptake -- are taking the streets, why aren't toilet-paper-less Venezuelans doing the same?

The answer probably has several components. It can be found in the evolution of the Venezuelan political process, in the particular circumstances of its economy, and in the recent track record of popular mobilizations.

Academics point to several factors as "triggers" of popular mobilizations. Latin American researchers Fabiana Machado, Carlos Scartascini, and Mariano Tommasi find that where institutions are strong, they serve as mechanisms for channeling people's frustrations. On the contrary, where institutions lack credibility, people take to the streets to vent their anger. They find that people do so regardless of the strength of individual affiliation to political parties or their relative political extremism.

Obviously, Venezuela's institutions are largely seen as lacking credibility, at least by a significant portion of the populace. Therefore, why aren't people hitting the streets like they are in Brazil, Turkey, or Egypt? If Nicolás Maduro is seen as illegitimate, why is he still there?

Loyola University political scientist Christopher Martínez has looked at the reasons why presidential regimes fall. He says that "presidebilismo" -- a term coined from the combination of the Spanish words for weak, "presidencialismo" and "débil," -- is particularly prevalent in Latin America, a region with a long tradition of presidents falling thanks to the pressure of popular movements.

Martínez claims that presidents that fall to popular pressure tend to have a low share of the vote in legislatures. They also happen to preside over slow-growing economies, and suffer from a particularly acute bout of political scandals.

None of these factors seem to be present in Venezuela. The current government has a strong majority in the National Assembly, and legislative roadblocks are virtually nonexistent. And while the economy is suffering from acute shortages, it seems to be growing -- barely, but just enough to stave off most protests.

Finally, the continuous succession of previous scandals in revolutionary Venezuela may help the government survive. No single issue remains in the public consciousness long enough to trigger outrage. Every scandal begets another, bigger scandal, until the population became immune to scandals overall. Just recently, a secret tape recording of a pro-government shock jock threatened the regime's foundations, but the fallout from was easily contained.

In Venezuela, however, one scandal in particular can't be so easily ignored: The claim by the opposition leadership that last April's election was stolen. Why hasn't this triggered massive protests?

According to political scientists Phillip Kuntz and Mark Thompson, stolen elections can sometimes trigger massive public demonstrations, and in Eastern Europe in particular, stolen elections have led to the crumbling of entrenched autocracies. In Venezuela, however, this has not happened yet.

Part of the reason lies with organizational and financial difficulties within the Venezuelan opposition itself. Yet another significant part of the problem is unity within the revolutionary movement -- it would seem as though tensions within the governing coalition have been kept under tabs, and unity within chavismo does not seem to be cracking.

Finally, the fact that election "shenanigans" play a routine part in Venezuela's political process may contribute to the view that demonstrations would be ineffective. Many voters might not view the election as "stolen" but merely as one where electoral fraud was "pervasive," and this may also be playing a role.

Venezuela has a complicated recent history with mass protests. In 2002, massive street demonstrations led to a massacre and a brief military coup that saw Hugo Chávez ousted for a few days. When Chávez was reinstated, he acted swiftly against his enemies. More demonstrations ensued in the next few years, but they were quickly followed by pro-government demonstrations of comparable size.

After years of marching, many within Venezuela's opposition movement have decided that taking to the streets is ineffective when dealing with the chavista autocracy. Venezuelans will seemingly march to support a candidate or when an extraordinary event triggers the need to do so, but there is an entrenched view that marching accomplishes little. Just this past weekend, university students (shown above) marched by the thousands demanding improved conditions, and the government has so far ignored their pleas.

The opposition leadership, however, has not given up on popular mobilization as a weapon. It seems as though they are biding their time, waiting until one or more things happen: the economy takes a serious downward turn, the regime's unity crumbles, or a massive scandal shocks public opinion. Until something like that happens, millions of Venezuelans stay in their homes awaiting their leaders' absent calls to hit the streets.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and co-author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.