Constitutions and New Modes of Sociability

First, if you haven't been stumbled across Jadaliyya, you should. Their analysis of the past few weeks has been nothing less than exceptional - presenting a wide range of thoughtful and critical analysis about the Arab world. One of their recent posts was an e-roundtable discussion about constitutional reform in Egypt, and I wanted to pull out some of what I found to be the most interesting sections.

Discussing whether or not Egypt needs simply an amended constitution or a new one, Alsi Bali writes:
Egypt needs a new constitution, one that shifts the balance between the branches of government away from the executive, introduces (or reinstates) institutional guarantees of judicial independence, lifts the emergency decrees and restores civilian judicial jurisdiction over most matters, strengthens individual rights protections and repeals emergency-based limitations, and establishes the basis for a pluralist party system. In other words, the constitutional architecture needs to be radically altered to excise the “legalities” of authoritarianism.
Responding to Bali, Samira Esmeir adds:
[The ongoing Egyptian revolution] has been claiming new grounds of legitimacy, while engendering collective political practices that defy the order of legality/security. A new revolutionary constitution, whether reformed or newly drafted, must inscribe in its articles this practice of disobedience and collective organization/mobilization; it must allow for the ongoing revolution to persist in making political claims.
A bit later on, responding to a question about whether or not constitutional reform is the most pressing issue at the moment, Hussein Agrama writes:
When a constitution loses its links to the powers that ostensibly established it, then its text becomes open to the widest interpretive distortions of legal and judicial thought. From the vantage point of the tradition of democratic legitimacy, what we saw in Egypt was a historic assertion of unbridled popular sovereignty – self-organized, sustained, focused and resolute. As a manifestation of constituting power, it sweeps away what came before and is itself the source of the legitimacy of what comes after.
There's a lot more to the conversation, but I want to try and pull out a few responses. As Bali points out, a constitution in and of itself is no guarantee of a liberal pluralist democracy. Indeed, Egypt's constitution functioned to render authoritarian practices legal. But it was Esmeir's comment that I found most suggestive - she describes the revolution as "claiming new grounds of legitimacy," which I absolutely agree with. Indeed, if you watch the Asmaa Mahfouz video that helped to spark the protests of 25 January, her language is shot through with appeals to a new politics, a new ground for critique totally divorced from the Mubarak regime.

Of course, the challenge of any new revolutionary constitution - as Esmeir rightly points out - is balancing that kind of revolutionary constitution of a new grounds for political authority and legitimacy with the actual functioning of the day-to-day. For better or worse, I'm strongly reminded of the French Revolution and its invention of the 'people' as the source of political legitimacy.

Indeed, in reading the revolution as a "manifestation of constituting power [that] sweeps away what came before and is itself the source of the legitimacy of what comes after," I think Agrama is saying much the same thing. To speculate: The revolution generated new kinds of social relationships - new modes of sociability - that mobilized existing networks of social, economic, and political relations but reconfigured them in radically new ways.


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