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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Morsi: Presiding or Partisan on the Constitution?

Appealing for unity after the controversial ratification of a draft constitution in December 2012, President Morsi of Egypt pledged in a televised address to respect the one-third of the electorate that had voted against the proposed constitution. He claimed that “active patriotic opposition” should not annoy the president or the people in a democracy. I contend that the office of president should not be of the sort that would have partisan opposition, ideally at least. That is to say, presiding means safeguarding the process itself, as well as the good of the whole, rather than pushing a partisan agenda. That Morsi was on record in support of the partisan-drafted proposal undercut his role as presider in chief. Given the innate instability of a nascent democracy, the role for a presider “above the fray” was particularly valuable in Egypt at the time. Morsi fell short in this regard, and thus put the fragile democracy at risk.
                                                                    President Morsi speaking behind the seal of Egypt, suggesting a "good of the whole" orientation.     source: csmonitor
In his address, Morsi said, “We don’t want to go back to the era of the one opinion and fabricated fake majorities.” Such an era is the extreme of a partisan president. The presiding president, in contrast, transcends opinions and even majorities, being oriented to the long-term interest of the republic itself. Literally, to preside means to “stand before,” as exemplified by George Washington’s officiating role at the constitutional convention in the United States in 1787. He resisted the urge to “trade on his stature” to advance one or another proposal until the last day, when he suggested that a U.S. House district of 40,000 rather than 30,000 would be insufficiently representative.  Had Morsi followed Washington’s example as the draft Egyptian constitution was being proposed and ratified, Egypt might have had a more credible person to hold up the fragile democracy so it would take root rather than succumb to partisan strife.
While pursuing a partisan path is undoubtedly tempting for a president, the costs are often ignored or hardly transparent. In Morsi’s case, his invitation for the opposition to join a dialogue was met by Husseain Abdel Ghani’s comment that the invitation was merely Morsi’s “dialogue with himself.” Only by standing above the proposed draft could the president have had enough credibility to effect a reconciliation. It was not enough for him to move to the political center after the ratification had been secured.
Instead of being invested in the draft, Morsi could have focused on “the big picture” in terms of how much consensus is necessary for a constitution to be something more than a partisan-approved document. Put another way, Morsi could have been oriented to the process by which the partisan-dominated draft could have been further modified such that at least part of “the opposition” would have been on board. Unlike a law, a constitution should have more than a majority faction’s stamp on it. Because most of a society should be behind a convention, it should not be dominated either in its formulation or ratification by the majority faction, or else follow-up work is warranted. Here is where a presiding president can come into the picture, being oriented to the society as a whole—to which a constitution rightly corresponds.
In short, Morsi may have approached the draft constitution as though it were a law rather than a constitution. Advancing the document that was dominated by his party in being formulated, he missed the opportunity to seek a wider massaging of the document into a final form. A similar mistake occurred in the American case as the convention there refused to consider proposed amendments from the countries’ ratifying conventions—some of which had sizable anti-federalist representation. Had this minority been assuaged, perhaps the resulting document might have had more safeguards against political consolidation at the expense of the governments of the member states.
Washington, himself a federalist, missed the opportunity to suggest on the last day of the convention that it would be in the long-term interest of the United States for the states to send new delegates to another convention for the purpose of considering amendments proposed by the ratifying conventions because a viable constitution should be something more than reflecting one perspective—as any one perspective contains blind spots. Moreover, incorporating a minority’s concerns could provide a check against the tyranny of the cultural artifacts of the age. A resulting document would be more likely to stand the test of time.
Similarly, by the way, an academic treatise can only be determined to be a classic after the scholar’s age has passed because only then—in another culture, in effect—can the artifacts of the author’s own be fully transparent. Like a good scholar being oriented at least in part to readers not yet born, a presiding president is oriented to a process most likely to render a constitution into a classic. Of course, it would be impossible for such a presider to ever know if he (or she) has been successful. The best such a president can do is to take pains that the process not succumb to expediency. Having such a perspective, such a president should be indifferent toward the various partisan agendas, even that of his (or her) own party. From the standpoint of such a presidential viewpoint, partisan agendas are merely the fleeting vanities of vanities.


David Kirkpartick, “Morsi Admits ‘Mistakes’ in Drafting Egypt’s Constitution,” The New York Times, December 27, 2012.