Don't rush the constitutional process in Egypt

Like the Islamists before them, Egypt's new rulers are treating the constitution as a prize to be grasped. We know where this mistake leads.

The 50 people assigned to patch up Egypt's tattered constitution convened for the first time yesterday. Egyptians, and their friends abroad, can only hope that this group does better than the last one. Unfortunately, the portents are not good.

Last year, Egypt went through this same exercise twice, in search of a basic law suitable for the post-Hosni Mubarak era.

The first of 2012's constitution-writing projects, dominated by the Islamists who controlled parliament, evaporated in a flurry of legal squabbles after judges said it had been improperly established.

The second had a smaller Islamist majority among its 100 members, but delegates opposed to the Islamists soon walked out.

Now it appears that the new interim government risks making exactly the same mistake again.

This time there are 50 members, but they have been given just 60 days to draft amendments to the constitution. A 10-member steering committee has already written a first draft that reduces the legal stature of Sharia jurisprudence but maintains the status of the army, among other changes.

Like the Islamists before them, the anti-Islamist interim government is treating the country's basic law as a prize to be seized. This shows a fundamental misunderstanding.

A constitution sets out the principles that unite a people and the mechanisms by which they live together and manage their affairs. It sets the rules for the compromises that make up the fabric of democratic life.

If a constitution is to endure, then it must begin with the broadest possible consensus. That requires plenty of time for calm reflection, not only among scholars, but including consultation across a broad swathe of the population.

Appointing 50 or 100 people and giving them a short time to finalise a draft offers no closure on the past to allow the nation to move forward.

Egypt's long-suffering people urgently need stability. But a new charter pushed into existence can introduce imprudence forced by an artificial timetable, rather than the wisdom needed to guide the future. Egypt needs to take the time it takes to write a constitution befitting the aspirations of all its people.

Published: September 9, 2013 04:00 AM