Were they wrong to walk out?

The decision by most liberal and secular members of the Egyptian Constitutional Council to walk out as a protest against the strong-arm tactics of the Islamists is condemned by some as further evidence of the immaturity of the liberal forces and their unwilling to “work constructively” or “face reality”.  Quite the contrary, their walk out is a responsible and mature decision. It is hardly petulance to refuse to lend one’s name to a sham process. There are five essential reasons to step out of this process.

1- The liberals are unlikely to achieve anything of value in the areas of protection of individual rights or protection for women and minorities. You simply can not argue with those who feel divinely inspired and are ready to shout you down without listening. So leaving is in keeping with the Chinese proverb “if you are arguing with a fool make sure he is not doing the same thing”.

2- All constitutions are compromises and are never perfect. The question is the nature and degree of compromise. the American constitution compromised on the issue of slavery, and it led to eight decades of division and turmoil followed by a bloody civil war. There was simply no way to “talk around” the compromise. It finally had to be settled one way or the other. Similarly, the likely outcome of this process will be a document so unfavorable to many elements of society, albeit a minority, that it will cause more turmoil. It is better not to bless it with any semblance of a consensus.  It would simply be dishonest to do so. Constitutions are not political decisions, where compromise is a mature and rational approach. They are statements of ideals. You can not write them without keeping an eye on what should be.

3- There is absolutely no reason Egypt needs a constitution now.  England lives without one. It can hardly be called a repressive society. What Egypt needs is decades of stability and economic progress to erase the trauma of the last decades of authoritarian rule and corruption. Better to spend these decades making ad-hoc compromises, with the various political forces learning to live together, than to pretend that an immediate transition to a full scale democracy is even possible.

4- The current assembly contains a significant fraction of political forces who do not believe in tolerance and true democracy, based on an open society and alterations at the ballot box. What is the point of engaging in a futile exercise. The difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis is one of degree. They both aim for a narrow illiberal society, with minimal tolerance for differing views. One group will turn up the heat immediately, the other will gradually turn up the heat, as “citizens are ready”. What we are looking at is a choice between drastic coercion and soft suave coercion. This is not much of a choice.

5- The Islamist forces need to take full responsibility for their actions. A token fig leaf included in every group, one weak enough to make no difference, but visible enough to support the claim that it was not the Islamist forces that made the decision, but a “national consensus”, serves no purpose other dilute accountability.

It is not responsible to ignore reality because it disagrees with the ideals we would like to espouse. Egyptians have shown in the last year that they are fed up with autocracy, that they yearn for a freer society and economic prosperity. Their political leaders have shown ineptness, self-dealing and dishonesty. These two facts must be accepted and reconciled. The path forward will demand a strong, but not imperial, presidency and transparent governance to improve the economic conditions and attract the needed foreign investment.

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