Nowhere has the belittling designation “the Arab street” been more overused than in descriptions of Egypt, the most populous and politically central Arab state. Egypt’s richly textured history of political opposition, one of the lon¬gest in the region, is inevitably reduced to images of livid young men brandishing copies of the Qur’an and burning American flags. Especially after September 11, portrayals of Egypt, mimicking the Mubarak regime’s own rhetoric, have propagated the myth of a modernizing, secular regime besieged by the forces of violent Islamism and thus “forced” to resort to repressive measures such as military trials of civilians and prolonged detention and torture of thousands of Islamist activists. After 22 years in power, the regime has mastered the art of impression management, papering over its rampant human rights abuses and routine confiscation of political rights with palliatives such as the recent appointment of Egypt’s first female judge, a war on corruption in high places and the designation of Coptic Christmas as a national holiday. Yet while the state giveth cosmetic reform, it indiscriminately taketh away the rights of opposition activists and even pro-regime academics like American University in Cairo professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Convicted twice by a state security court in 2001 and 2002, Ibrahim’s case is now being tried before high appeals court judges, with a final verdict due on March 18, 2003.
The reductive tendency to shoehorn all of Egyptian politics into a deadlock between the regime and the Islamists, on the one hand, and the regime and the unwieldy masses, on the other, has kept most Egypt-watchers from noticing all the meaningful and consequential forms of political expression in the country today. At best, Parliament, the courts and civil society are dutifully noted as sites of well-meaning but ineffective symbolic resistance. Indeed, it is not uncommon for both Egyptian activists and outside observers to repeatedly announce the death of politics and the triumph of the Egyptian Leviathan in snuffing out all forms of political expression. As one writer recently proclaimed, “Little domestic impetus for reform remains.” 
The situation on the ground belies these claims of inaction and political lethargy. True, the Mubarak years have witnessed a general impoverishment of political expression and an alarming rise in violations of human rights and civil liberties, but the state’s transgressions have not gone unchallenged. A hobbled, deeply scarred but still active civil society movement persists in documenting the regime’s abuses and forcing it to answer for its wrongs before international bodies. For the past 15 years, Egyptian human rights groups have consistently publicized the regime’s appalling record of torture. They were cited for their work by Amnesty International and the UN Committee Against Torture in their November 2002 reports. In response to the challenges posed by domestic human rights groups, the Egyptian government created a human rights desk in the For¬eign Ministry in 1992 to represent the regime’s line on rights abuses. The administrative courts have become a central arena for limiting the sprawling powers of the executive, prodded into action by the litigation of activist citizens. And the rubber-stamp parliament received a new lease on life when a landmark July 2000 Supreme Court decision requiring judicial supervision of elections brought in a more representative and more contentious group of deputies, including 17 Muslim Brothers. As a measure of how threatened the government feels by the presence of even a handful of vigilant opposition MPs, in January 2003, on the pretext of irregularities in the original vote count, it engineered a rerun of the election in a northern province and ousted Gamal Heshmat, one of the Brothers’ most active parliamentarians. In the same month, the government canceled the panel discussions at the annual Cairo International Book Fair, a rare forum that brings together ordinary Egyptians and members of the intelligentsia in heated public debates. Not about to be silenced, opposition leaders staged anti-war demonstrations on the fairgrounds.
Domestic Roots of International Solidarity
Recently, some of the most creative forms of political expression have come from the Palestine and Iraq solidarity movements. In the wake of the second intifada in September 2000 and Ariel Sharon’s subsequent election in February 2001, “popular committees” led by activists of diverse political orientations have transformed intense popular support for the Palestinians into tangible political acts. The Egyptian Popular Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada (EPCSPI) has raised funds, driven food and first aid caravans to the Egyptian-Israeli border (often to have the supplies confiscated by Egyptian border authorities), initiated boycott campaigns of American-made products, instigated petitions and protest delegations to Egyptian ministries and foreign embassies, and helped steer demonstrations in April 2002 that were the most intense since the 1991 Gulf war. Dozens of protesters were injured and one Alexandria University student killed by security forces. Farid Zahran, one of the founders of EPCSPI, was harassed and detained by the government in September-October 2001.
On December 18 and 19, 2002, in spite of government obstructions and the refusal of US-owned hotel chains to host the event, the Egyptian Popular Campaign to Confront US Aggression held a two-day conference with an impressive list of international participants, including anti-war activists from Europe, Latin America and Africa. The resultant Cairo declaration concludes with a nine-point action plan that is a mélange of anti-globalization rhetoric, Arab nationalist thought, environmentalism, populism and good old-fashioned skepticism about the global hegemon’s geopolitical designs. That Egyptian businessmen funded a conference organized by Egyptian leftist and Arab nationalist activists and featuring such ultra-left totems as Ramsey Clark reveals not just the breadth of opposition to the looming war on Iraq. More importantly, the conference highlighted the growing resourcefulness of local reformers in overcoming years of factionalism, while successfully linking their struggle with international movements, adding a new dimension to the “politics of linkage” theme discussed at the plenary.
Cynics write off the Palestine and Iraq solidarity movements as tacitly encouraged and even manipulated by the regime, to let “the street” blow off steam about Israel and the US while the government gets a free pass. However, biting anti-regime slogans — the most pointed since the January 1977 “bread riots” — have become part and parcel of every anti-Israel and anti-US demonstration. Especially popular are “Husni Mubarak is like Sharon, same looks, same breed” (Husni Mubarak zayy Sharon, nafs al-shakl wa nafs al-lawn) and “Revolution, revolution till victory! Revolution in Pal¬estine and in Egypt” (thawra, thawra hata al-nasr, thawra fi Filastin wa fi Masr). Further, those active in the intifada and Iraq solidarity movements are the leading lights of general opposition to the government; the solidarity movements are in fact an outgrowth of a long Egyptian opposition tradition of politically heterogeneous alliances for domestic reform. Leaders of the pro-Palestine and anti-war movements, such as independent Nasserist MP Hamdeen Sabahy, reformist Islamist Abul Ela Madi, publisher Farid Zahran, Nasserist activist Amin Iskander, opposition MP Adel Eid and veteran journalist Muhammad Ouda are familiar names from their years-long involvement in coalitions for domestic reform.
One of the most important such alliances in recent years is an ideologically, generationally and professionally diverse gathering of Egyptian opposition elements around the issue of domestic political and constitutional reform. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC), launched in September 1999, brings together forty-something Islamist activists, septuagenarian retired judges, octogenarian political party leaders, middle-aged writers and journalists, human rights activists, academics, doctors, lawyers and opposition MPs. It includes Muslim Brothers, staunch Nasserists, self-styled liberals, old-guard Wafdists, committed Communists, Arab socialists and free marketeers. In short, the PCRC is a prism of the nation’s political diversity, albeit an elite, virtually all-male prism. Still, it is remarkable for bridging the factional divides that have bedeviled Egyptian politics for years. The PCRC gets right to the heart of the matter, demanding a revision of Egypt’s basic law, particularly the sensitive sections governing presidential selection and prerogatives.
Appearing on the scene with the referendum on Mubarak’s fourth presidential term in October 1999, the PCRC gained additional impetus when the regime arrested 20 prominent Muslim Brother professionals in the same month and referred them to a military tribunal. At an October 1999 meeting, PCRC members affirmed solidarity with the arrested Brothers and reiterated five central demands: lifting of the state of emergency, safeguards for free elections, unrestricted formation of political parties, abolition of restrictions on the establishment and ownership of newspapers and other media, and guarantees of independence for syndicates and civil society groups. The spectacle of leftists and Nasserists protesting the political harassment of Muslim Brothers was unimaginable 15 years ago. It took the 1990s era of indiscriminate political persecution at the hands of the state to make them see common cause. The PCRC transcended past rivalries in pursuit of a higher goal: the transformation of Egypt from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, which means revising the basic text that privileges the president and subordinates Parliament.
Questioning the foundations of the political system raises the specter of “instability” — the perennial bugaboo of the Mubarak regime. President Husni Mubarak has said, “I do not believe in change just for the sake of change. I do not even believe in change every now and then or occasionally.” He and other government officials have made it only too clear how threatening they find the PCRC. In October 2002, considering proposals for a new electoral law, Mubarak commented, “There is no need to amend the constitution. The constitution should not be considered an obstacle in the way of democratization.”  Taking their cue from the top, government representatives have vociferously attacked calls for constitutional reform as unnecessary and divisive. In 1999, in response to the PCRC’s announcement of its plans to collect signatures nationwide on a plan of constitutional reform, a government spokesman said, “A constitutional debate would not unify the country. It would have divided the country.”  Ibrahim Nafie, appointed by Mubarak as editor of the state-owned flagship daily al-Ahram, characterized PCRC members as a dangerous minority faction “who seek to hijack the rights of an entire population in order to further the aims of a handful of political and party activists.”  A few months after his appointment as head of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), former deputy minister of justice Fathi Naguib pooh-poohed calls for constitutional reform, stating, “For the moment, constitutional reform is not urgent…the constitution is a flexible ensemble capable of evolution.”  Mubarak’s appointment of Naguib in August 2001, the first time the SCC chief justice has come from outside the court’s ranks, is widely believed to be an attempt to silence the overly independent and hence troublesome institution. 
Heterogeneous alliances on common political goals have a long history in Egypt, originating in the massive popular upheaval against British occupation in 1919. “’19” left an indelible memory of action committees, marches, national petition drives, work stoppages, student activism and women’s street politics that profoundly shaped twentieth-century Egyptian political expression. In 1946, the students’ and workers’ committee organized demonstrations against the British, while coalitions formed in Parliament to resist legislation introduced by the palace curbing press freedom. Joint political action of a common front structure took off in earnest in the wake of the 1967 defeat, impelled by the February 1968 student and worker demonstrations that swept the country. Anwar Sadat’s sudden trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 and the subsequent separate peace with Israel provided more fodder for joint political action. 
Since then, issue-specific alliances have crystallized around various facets of Egypt’s repressive legal structure, especially laws and statutes proscribing political liberties and freedom of association, such as the notorious law 100/1993 interfering in professional association elections. Campaigns against the law brought together Muslim Brothers and pro-regime figures such as former MP and medical association chairman Hamdi al-Said. Since 1995, the government’s increasing resort to military trials to ostracize reformist Muslim Brothers saw attempts to mobilize elite public opinion against the practice, such as protest petitions signed by prominent figures of all political persuasions.  A dramatic example came when prominent Coptic engineer and housing expert Milad Hanna testified in court on behalf of fellow engineers, who happened to be Muslim Brothers, being tried before a military tribunal in January 2000.
“A Joke That Turned Serious”
As in much of the Third World, constitutions in the Arab world are instruments of rule, rather than instruments of restraint on arbitrary state power. In Egypt after 1952, constitutions have been little more than codexes of presidential powers, reflecting their origin in political struggles between the chief executive and his challengers. The current constitution, promulgated on September 11, 1971 (and amended in 1980), is no exception. Having barely won an internecine battle with the Nasserist old guard in May 1971, Anwar Sadat was keen to fuse as many powers as possible in the person of the president to give himself a leg up in the future. A few years before his assassination in 1981, he acknowledged deliberately packing the document with presidential prerogatives. Sadat told veteran journalist and his onetime speech writer Ahmad Baha’ al-Din, “Oh Ahmad, Nasser and I, we are the last pharaohs! You think Nasser needed texts to govern, or that I do? The powers you’re talking about I put there for those who would come after us, ordinary presidents, Muhammad, Ali, Umar. They’ll need these clauses to get by.”  Notwithstanding (or perhaps because of ) Sadat’s attempt to spin the 1971 document as intended for “ordinary presidents,” advocates of constitutional reform call it “Sadat’s constitution.” 
Yet despite Sadat’s precautions, the 1971 constitution would produce the most unintended of consequences. Though handpicked by the president, the committee of legalists entrusted with drafting the document was a curious amalgam of liberal law professors and presidential legal advisers who each worked to tailor the constitution to their own visions.  The former, such as Ibrahim Darwish and Tharwat Badawi, sought to limit presidential prerogatives and terms of office and amplify the purview of the traditionally pliant legislature. For their part, the president’s men, such as the influential Gamal al-‘Utayfi, stressed the need for a strong presidency to manage tense relations with Israel and the permissibility of the president’s re-election for two more consecutive terms of six years each, for a total of 18 years in power. A year before his death, Sadat amended Article 77 to enable the incumbent president to be elected for an unlimited number of terms. Crucially, the liberal camp which advocated direct popular election of the president lost. Instead, Article 76 stipulates that the president is to be selected by two thirds of the 454-member Parliament and their selection ratified by the people in a plebiscite.
The final document of September 11, 1971 was thus a fundamentally composite creature. On the one hand, it was overwhelmingly weighted towards the chief executive, granting him the power to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and cabinet ministers, start impeachment proceedings against them, issue decrees with the force of law, hold referenda by which parliament can be bypassed, declare a state of emergency, convene emergency sessions of parliament and appoint ten members of that body. The constitution grants the president staggering powers over the two other branches, giving him the right to dissolve Parliament after putting the issue to a referendum and empowering him to chair the Supreme Judicial Council, which oversees affairs of the nation’s judges. For good measure, Sadat’s legal tailors also inserted the famously indeterminate phrase “the president guards the boundaries between the powers” in Article 73, which ostensibly refers to his respect for the separation of powers. In effect, this deliberately opaque construction has proven very useful to the Mubarak regime’s scribes, who have interpreted it to mean the president is “the referee” between the powers, further sanctifying his aura in the contemporary political lexicon.
On the other hand, under pressure from the law professors, the constitution guarantees a whole host of freedoms, and Parts III and IV are entirely dedicated to civil rights and the rule of law. It prohibits torture and degrading treatment of detainees and searches without a warrant, while guaranteeing freedom of religion and expression, freedom of the press and freedom to conduct research and engage in artistic expression. Citizens have the right to congregate peaceably, form associations, establish unions and syndicates and vote and run for office. Indeed, Article 62 reminds Egyptians that “participation in public affairs is a national duty,” while Article 47 states that “constructive criticism is a guarantee of the soundness of the national edifice.” Still, the presidential faction on the committee made sure to stipulate that many of these rights are to be “determined by law,” thus enabling the government to curtail those rights as it sees fit. Not content with these ample safeguards, the government of Husni Mubarak has ruled Egypt under a continuous state of emergency since Sadat’s assassination on October 6, 1981. Emergency law effectively suspends the constitution by prohibiting public marches and demonstrations (indeed any gathering of more than five people) and gives the state huge powers of “preventive” detention without charge and military trials of dissidents. Scores of activists in the anti-war movement are currently in detention, joining thousands of Islamist activists who have been detained for years.
Activists have exploited the fundamental ambiguity of the 1971 constitution to maximize its liberal potential, bringing cases before the courts to contest the constitutionality of laws and administrative decrees. In the words of lawyer and activist Nasser Amin, the 1971 constitution is “a joke that turned serious.” By taking the liberal but dormant portions of the constitution seriously, litigants have pushed the reform-minded judiciary to invalidate bad laws and unjust decrees. This piecemeal strategy of legal contestation has significantly limited the regime’s room for maneuver, and led to outcomes like the landmark July 2000 ruling of the SCC requiring judicial supervision of parliamentary elections. The plaintiff, a lawyer named Kamal Hamza al- Nasharti, had run in the 1990 elections and lost, due, he claimed, to police interference. Nasharti argued in court against the constitutionality of provisions of the electoral law permitting non-judiciary members to oversee polling stations. The SCC agreed with him, prompting judicial oversight of parliamentary elections, for the first time in Egyptian history, later that year. Citizens’ legal mobilization has not always been liberal, and sometimes has led to terrifying consequences. Maverick lawyers have used the courts to push for the banning of allegedly impious films and in the most absurd instance, the separation of university professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd from his wife. In 1993, principal plaintiff (and Abu Zayd’s faculty peer) Abd al-Sabbur Shahin argued that Abu Zayd’s academic writings constitute apostasy and as such he has forfeited his right to remain married to a Muslim woman. A puzzling 1995 Cairo Court of Appeals ruling supported Shahin, and Abu Zayd and his wife Ibtihal Younis have since lived in exile in the Netherlands.
Toward a Living Document
If one strategy has been to take the existing constitution seriously, transforming it from a tool of political control to a mechanism of accountability, reformers have simultaneously called for a fundamental overhaul of the constitution, not simply the insertion of amendments. What troubles activists are not the clearly obsolete economic injunctions that “the economic foundation of the Arab Republic of Egypt is democratic socialism” or “the public sector bears the primary responsibility in the development plan.” Rather, what has spurred the demand for change is the 1971 document’s systematic concession of overwhelming presidential powers and stingy extension of puny parliamentary prerogatives. As law professor Muhammad Hilmi Murad has written, the goal is to rectify the “illegitimate birth” of the 1971 document and replace it with a more democratic version growing out of a more transparent and participatory process. 
The tussle over the constitution between the government and reformists began in earnest in 1991, when the heads of all political parties, the Muslim Brothers and the Communists signed a joint statement requesting that the president consider a proposal for a new constitution drafted by an all-star team of legalists. They held a press conference on July 8 announcing the initiative, arguing that “the time has come for the Egyptian people to regain their rights to true democracy, to freely select their representatives without pressure, terrorism or rigging.”  The drafters included Islamists such as Muhammad Salim al-‘Awwa, liberal Wafdists ‘Atif al-Banna and Muhammad Asfour, retired judges, the entire faculty of the Alexandria University law school, and members of the Egyptian Society of Constitutional Law. Among the drafters was judicial titan Yahya al-Rifa‘i, a former head of the Court of Cassation (Egypt’s highest appellate court) and a survivor of a vindictive judicial purge by the Nasser regime in 1969. In response to the 1991 proposal, the regime moved through its classic three-stage reaction process. First, Mubarak simply ignored the document, along with other projects presented to him at the time, including a comprehensive proposal by al-Rifa‘i for judicial autonomy from the overbearing ministry of justice. When calls for constitutional reform did not abate, the government moved on to its second tactic, cooptation.
In the summer of 1994, Mubarak presided over a conference of “National Dialogue,” whose 274 participants included 237 members of the ruling party. The Islamists were excluded. Wafdists and Nasserists boycotted the event in protest, and conference proceedings predictably substituted socio-economic problems for the core issue of political reform. Meanwhile, al-Rifa‘i and others kept the impetus for constitutional reform alive by extending the circle of elites advocating the project, building links with a younger generation of activists in the professional syndicates and human rights groups, and forming ancillary configurations to the Popular Committee for Constitutional Reform, such as the National Concord and the Committee for Coordination between Political Parties and Forces. Starting in 1997, the latter body began holding annual conferences at which a common set of both negative and positive freedoms was articulated. They included lifting the state of continuous emergency in effect since October 1981, putting a stop to extrajudicial killings and routine torture in prisons and police stations, setting up an independent commission to monitor elections, and lifting all restrictions on freedom of association and the press. By doing so, activists were simply calling for the realization of rights granted in the 1971 constitution but cramped by the reality of broad executive powers. Trimming these powers is the gateway to putting an end to rights abuses.
When activists of the PCRC, the most recent incarnation of the reformist spirit, began to demand direct election of the president with a choice of candi¬dates, rather than a referendum on a single candidate selected by Parliament, the regime deployed its third tactic and went into attack mode. Mubarak and other regime figures explicitly denounced calls for reform as sinister and destabilizing. Most recently, on a high-level visit to Washington, presidential scion Gamal Mubarak, who many believe is being groomed as Egypt’s next president, told the Washington Post that reform of presidential selection was “not on the agenda.”  Anticipating petition drives and a public demonstration against the renewal of the emergency law scheduled for March 9 and organized by PCRC leader Hussein ‘Abd al-Raziq, on February 23 the government railroaded a bill through parliament extending emergency law until 2006. In words typical of the regime’s Orwellian rhetoric, Prime Minister ‘Atif ‘Ubayd assured MPs that authorities “will not use this law to undermine freedoms…[I]t will be used only to ensure and protect the nation and to abort sabotage attempts.”
But the taboo of questioning presidential authority has already been broken, and models of what an alternative constitution would look like have literally emerged out of the woodwork. Enterprising leftist journalist and historian Salah Eissa, a leading organizer of the PCRC, unearthed a long-lost draft copy of a liberal 1954 constitution, which was discarded by the Free Officers even though they had commissioned the document. The reason? The 1954 draft constitution was a blueprint for a parliamentary system that placed stringent restrictions on the executive and made it truly accountable before the representatives of the people. Nasser resented its requirement that the president be no younger than 45 (he was 36 in 1954). Miraculously, Eissa located the 26-page typewritten text buried deep in a box in the basement of a Cairo research center. He dusted it off, reconstructed its history, got former SCC chief justice Awad al-Morr to write a foreword and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies published it as Constitution in the Trash Bin: The Story of the 1954 Draft Constitution.
Egypt has no new constitution, but it now has two models for such a document — the 1991 proposal and the 1954 draft that never saw the light. More importantly, there is now a conception of a parliamentary system as a coherent alternative to the status quo. The PCRC and its predecessors are relatively small gatherings of counter-elites with no popular following, but so were the Federalists in the United States, and PCRC members have decided to mobilize elite opinion first before taking the issue to the public. Even on this elite level, they have not succeeded in convening constitution drafting roundtables as in post-communist Eastern Europe, and they have yet to win over skeptics, such as respected former judge Tariq al-Bishri. Al-Bishri lauds the PCRC’s work but does not have much hope that its members can effect a real transformation in the balance of power between state and society. Still, PCRC members have de-sanctified the aura surrounding the office of president and unmasked the regime’s feeble invocations of “stability.” They have wrested the initiative of constitution-making from the government, which has hogged it for the full length of Egypt’s republican history. The government’s most recent extension of emergency rule suggests how imperiled it feels by the mere possibility of activating even as flawed a constitution as the 1971 document. As Hafez Abu Saada, secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, told the Associated Press on February 23, “This law will remain a sword that hangs over freedoms and rights granted by the Egyptian constitution.” Emergency “law” is an all-purpose swatter aimed at antiwar activists and political reformists alike, pushing them to address the root of the problem. The dour legalists and tweedy professors who push for constitutional reform may not be as newsworthy as armed insurgents or angry crowds, but their calls for domestic reform have always been equally if not more unsettling to authorities.
In the summer of 1882, Alexandria was pummeled by gunboats anchored off its harbor. By September of that year, the British had invaded the country and established a military occupation that would last until 1956. They were acting to quash popular demands for a new constitution to limit khedivial power and an end to foreign control of Egypt’s finances. A year before assuming the top job in Cairo, Sir Evelyn Baring averred in 1882, “I daresay, under the altered condition of affairs, nothing more will be heard of an Egyptian Constitution…. My own opinion is that anything approaching to a Constitution is in advance of the real requirements of the country, and that it would be more in the interests of Egypt that its political development should proceed gradually.”  As Lord Cromer so well understood, constitutions are a dangerous business.
 For a discussion based on the minutes of the committee that drafted the constitution, see Bruce Rutherford, The Struggle for Constitutionalism in Egypt: Understanding the Obstacles to Democratic Transition in the Arab World (Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1999), pp. 221-249.
 “Memorandum on the Present Situation in Egypt,” (September 18, 1882), Foreign Office Confidential Print 4741* in Kenneth Bourne and D. Cameron Watt, eds. British Documents on Foreign Affairs, Part I, Series B, vol. 9 (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1984), pp. 275-276.