Attention all dictators: A Manual for Constitutional Disaster
My latest post for Foreign Policy Magazine’s website*.
Attention all dictators! Are you looking to pass a constitution tailored to keep you in power while maintaining a semblance of democracy and representation? If so, look no further: just heed the example of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (represented by its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party), and their close ally, the Salafi Al-Nour party. The following suggestions should provide you with everything you need in order to turn your back on your nation’s revolution — indeed, on the nation itself — and torpedo the dreams of the generation that, at the price of their very lives, created the conditions that allowed you to come to power.
Taking a note from the Brotherhood playbook, the following steps are a foolproof recipe to sideline opposing opinions and, along with them, the vast majority of the silent population:
- Whenever possible, state that the process of the constitution drafting will be an inclusive process that represents all strands of the population, as drafting a constitution must be a consensual effort.
- For weeks before the selection of the committee, announce your support for having the majority of the committee come from outside of Parliament. Be sure to state that you will pick people based on their skills and relevance to the process. Then backtrack on all of these promises just moments before the vote, declaring that you plan instead to give half the seats of the committee to members of parliament.
- When discussing with parliamentary members the modalities of selecting the 100-person committee tasked with drafting the new constitution, present a list of candidates you have already agreed upon with your main ally in parliament (which together you dominate). Use your parliamentary majority to approve the measure without giving anyone else a chance to discuss the merits of the candidates. In fact, you don’t even have to discuss it with your party members, who probably blindly believe the decisions of your party’s politburo, the ‘Guidance Council’.
- Give a handful of irrelevant parties — either your own allies or offshoots of the former dictator’s party — the chance to have their name in the news for once by publicly approving this committee.
- When appointing supposedly independent figures from outside the parliament, select irrelevant individuals based solely on their political leanings. Include the token religious minority of your own party, renowned public personalities with clear Islamist leanings, and the spokesperson of your parliamentary ally, who will go on to declare that “efficiency” is to be the main criterion of selecting members for this committee.
- Be sure to include very few legal scholars (a dozen or so) in the committee. After all, you don’t want too many jurists challenging the validity of the document you want them to sign. Whenever possible, select those with clear Islamist inclinations, people who you are certain will only nod in approval to your suggestions and repeat your talking points.
- Ignore nearly all the revolutionary youth who led and died for the revolution while you and your buddies sat on your hands, either waiting for the storm to pass or cowardly declaring that it was religiously forbidden to disobey the ruler.
- Ignore women. Gradually forced to make a concession, you decided that only 6 percent of the seats should represent half of the population. Endeavor to select appointees who will be as irrelevant to women’s rights as possible, such as a parliamentarian who seeks to repeal a legal ban on female genital mutilation, or the inexperienced daughter of a member of the Brotherhood’s aforementioned and all-powerful Guidance Council.
- Ignore student unions, despite their revolutionary heroism. If you must, appoint one student who studies dentistry, and who is also a member of your party.
- Ignore the independent labor syndicates, whose strikes brought the old regime to its knees in the last days of the revolution.
- When Al-Azhar, the nation’s millennial Islamic beacon of knowledge and reference for Muslims the world over, announces that it will withdraw and boycott the work of this committee because it does not feel properly represented, ignore them.
- When the Holy Synod of the Coptic Church, the spiritual home of 10 percent of your population, expresses serious concerns over the formation and the working of the constitutional drafting committee, ignore them.
- When the non-Islamist members of this 100-strong committee realize they were only added to legitimize a rotten process and begin resigning en masse even before the committee has held its first meeting, ignore them.
- Give them the beard — sorry, the finger — by having one of your smaller hardliner allies, a representative of an openly violent organization, state on television that “those who resigned from the committee have no real followership,” and that you “challenge them to take to the streets,” fully knowing that, unlike you, they can’t provide bus transportation or meals for protesters.
- Reiterate that the process of constitutional drafting will be an inclusive and consensual process.
- Have the speaker of the parliament run, unchallenged, for the chairmanship of the constitutional committee. When people object that the chair of the committee tasked with drafting a document that will determine relations between two branches of government is himself the president of one of these branches, and that this represents an outrageous conflict of interest, ignore them.
- Having shaped the committee to your liking, begin conducting meetings. Disregard the fact that about 25 percent of the committee has quit in protest. Ignore suggestions from the handful of remaining conscientious members to resolve the matter or bring back some ideological balance to the committee.
- Promptly begin to release statements that constitutional clauses are coming along nicely.
If you follow these steps, you will end up with something that resembles a party manifesto. Do not forget to slap a cover on it that says “Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt” (replace with your own country name). Success! Well, partially, because the next step will be to get formal popular approval. This, too, will not be difficult, if you follow the following steps:
- Shove it down the throats of the civilian population via a massive PR campaign. This is, after all, the same population that you fooled into voting you in by heavily overplaying a religious message and depicting, often via immoral religious preachers addressing their congregations, your political opposition as anti-Islam;
- Ensure success in getting people to vote for clauses that are against their own interest: Do not allow people to vote for clauses individually. Rather, put the entire document to vote in one go, leaving no room for independent thought, and, more importantly, focusing on the one or few articles that mention Islam and stress in your PR campaign that voting against the constitutional draft would be a vote against Islam or Egypt’s identity as an Islamic state — something that all parties, across the board, never really debated to begin with.
You now have the necessary manifesto-constitution to put a country with dreams of equality and democracy on the road to becoming a religious theocracy. Congratulations!
* this post was written 10 days ago. This version is slightly edited from the one that appeared on the website.