Egypt’s new constitution

Jadaliyya has an analysis of the draft Egyptian constitution that passed today with a comically high popular vote. But as with the vote thirteen months ago, the abstention rate is likely to be so high that something like ten to fifteen percent of eligible-to-vote Egyptians will have officially endorsed the document. Some people attribute the low turnout to the Muslim Brotherhood’s call for a boycott, but the 2012 referendum had the brotherhood’s cooperation and still saw a very high rate of abstention. It’s clear that in Egypt, as elsewhere, abstaining represents a political strategy, not a lack of politics. The abstention rate might be the most important fact about the referendum.

But the content of the draft constitution itself is important, and this one is interesting in the rights it grants and in the guarantees it revokes. On one hand, many of the rights that in the past were subject to limitations and ambiguities, and to legislative codification, have in the new constitution been made explicit and (seemingly) unconditional. As Jadaliyya’s analysis says, it

includes measures [that] could be used to increase labor rights, including workers’ right to a minimum wage and a maximum wage for public-sector administrators, along with the right to establish labor (or class-based) political parties. [T]he charter protects basic rights, including the right to social security, employment opportunities, collective bargaining, and safeguards against punitive sackings of workers and punitive dissolutions of labor organizations. It also outlines provisions for Egypt’s workers, small farmers, peasants, fishermen, persons with special needs, pensioners, minorities, and women, he says.

So, a constitutional framework that strives toward universality, even spelling out protections for specific, historically subaltern population types. Of course such detailing is a first step toward monitoring and directing via legislation and enforcement, but that’s the case with any constitutional process. The formal extension of rights should be taken seriously.

On the other hand, some previously enjoyed rights–or at least international norms that were recognized–get curtailed in the new constitution, and some old restrictions are retained. For instance, there can be “no forced labor except in accordance with the law, and with the objective of performing a public service for a defined period of time and in return for a fair wage.” Other worrying elements include an expansion of the kinds of crimes than can be subject to military tribunals, to the point where most political activity could be so classified. There are also new restrictions on forming government employees’ forming labor unions, a ban that had applied only to military and the police but that now covers all civil workers. Finally, a fifty-year-old provision that gave workers and farmers fifty-percent representation in parliament no longer exists.

In other words, the constitution guarantees more of what could be called economic rights while expanding the ability of the state to control and manage political life and expression.

That’s a perfectly appropriate way for a military dictatorship to proceed. But I think there is more going on than simply the generals’ need to protect their rule. The new, rights-granting provisions of the constitution are heavily tilted toward labor organizing and workplace protections, an acknowledgement that the 2011 uprising was in large part an economic uprising; that is, it was prompted by material conditions–indebtedness, lack of jobs, austerity–even if it was expressed politically. The new constitution is in many ways an anti-neoliberal one.

Put another way, it might signal an ascendence of the political over the economic. The military seems to be wagering that securing rights and granting autonomy in “economic” matters during a time of extended economic crisis can have a palliative effect, though offset of course by the state’s increased political prerogatives, which will translate as police action. As a recent article in Mute put it:

Police violence has always been especially necessary in long periods of capitalist transition…. [It is] the expression of indirect coercion through which the newly reduced conditions of social existence can be forced upon a population which is accustomed to (and which desires to defend) better ‘standards’ of living.

The violence is well underway elsewhere, of course, from out-of-control cops to mass spying and lots more. The Egyptian constitution codifies and formalizes it.

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