Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

The summer of 1787 and Egypt’s itch for constitutional reform

April 4, 2011 by Holly Munson


“Welcome to Philadelphia. The year is 1787.”

A poster, with a nod to Obama's "Hope" campaign. Illustration by Nick Bygon

This is the message that greets visitors entering the Kimmel Theatre at the National Constitution Center. Here, visitors can listen in on conversations of Philadelphians from the time of the Constitutional Convention.

Two men debate the validity of Shays’ Rebellion; a woman declares the need to provide more educational opportunities for women; a man complains about the vexing proliferation of flies throughout the city. What these conversations capture is the sense of restlessness and anticipation that pervaded Philadelphia, among both the delegates and the people, during the summer of 1787—and it’s easy to imagine that Egyptians over the past few weeks have been feeling a comparable sense of anticipation.

Egypt does not have the luxury of starting from scratch; it must rise from the ashes of decades in which its constitution was rendered meaningless by the “state of emergency” declared by the president. Now, Egyptians are itching for reform. As they move away from the autocratic rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians have made several significant steps toward a functioning constitution—and democracy.

On March 19, voters approved nine amendments to the country’s 40-year-old constitution, with 77.2 percent in favor of the referendum and 22.8 percent opposed. Many youth activists were hesitant to approve the amendments because they felt the changes would lead to a too-hasty election in which secular parties are not nearly as prepared as existing groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. But for supporters, approving the amendments was a way to ensure a prompt transition from military to civilian rule. Here are a few major changes:

  • Full judicial oversight for elections has been reinstated.
  • Independent candidates may now run for office. (Previously, candidates needed, among other requirements, signatures from 250 elected government officials. This highly favored the ruling National Democratic Party, and effectively kept independent candidates from running.)
  • Presidential terms are now four years rather than six, and individuals are limited to two terms.
  • There are now stronger limits on the president’s power to declare a state of emergency.

In addition, on March 23, the Egyptian government approved an amendment to Law 40 of 1977. The new law outlines the process for creating a political party and prohibits the establishment of parties based on religion or on any form of discrimination.

Much like Americans in 1787, Egyptians are anxious and hopeful for the future of their government. There are certainly many challenges ahead for the country. But if they continue in their constitutional reform, perhaps they will make their way to ensuring the rule of law and creating a stable, democratic government.


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