Michael Rubin argues that we shouldn’t worry too much about constitutional technicalities in Egypt, because Mubarak never did. But isn’t the fact that nobody ever worried much about the Egyptian constitution precisely what has given international legitimacy to a mob in the streets?
Mubarak’s announced reforms to specific articles of the Egyptian constitution — opening up the electoral process, imposing term limits, lifting the emergency-powers decrees, etc. — go far to meet the political grievances of the Egyptian protesters. The question of whether these reforms are enough, or should be enough, can’t logically turn on whether Mubarak leaves now or later.
Earlier this week on NRO, I argued that Egypt’s constitution was never fully legitimate because — though it long enjoyed the consent of the governed — the legislature never fully represented the people, the executive was never structured for impartial execution of the laws, and the judiciary was never fully independent. As Arab leaders go, Egypt’s modern presidents (Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak) were all rather moderate in using the dictatorial powers that the country’s constitution gave them. The problem was that the constitution gave them dictatorial powers. They were therefore nothing more than illegitimate dictators even when they were wildly popular at home and abroad. Mubarak is no less legitimate now than Nasser was when the parents and grandparents of these same protesters cheered him on.
Mubarak’s departure will accomplish nothing without a real constitutional transformation. Among other things, real constitutional reform could significantly attenuate the dangers of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover. In Lebanon, Hezbollah wouldn’t have been able to challenge the authority of the state if the state’s constitution hadn’t been so weak to begin with.
It wouldn’t hurt for U.S. officials to brush up on their French history. The steps that led from the Fourth Republic to the Fifth Republic at the end of 1958 are a model for how to handle a constitutional crisis. We should be calling on Egyptian leaders to draft a new constitution and submit it to a plebiscite before the elections scheduled for September.