A country’s constitution is the mother of all laws, and Egypt has a long and venerable history in engaging with this concept in its modern sense.
Although Egyptian constitutional history dates back to the mid-19th century, the 1923 constitution is the most important landmark because it was the direct result of the will of the Egyptian people after the 1919 Revolution and the declaration of independence from Britain.
All components of Egyptian society were represented on the constitutional drafting committee. Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church were there, and the chief rabbi of Egyptian Jews also took part in the discussions in this national act of laying out the future of a liberal and democratic government in the monarchical era of Egypt’s modern history.
However, the tyranny of the crown and the British occupiers soon worked to undermine this unprecedented constitution. Eventually, then prime minister Ismail Sidqi, who had broken away from the Wafd Party, the embodiment of the 1919 national movement, formed the People’s Party to serve as his vehicle to power and replaced the 1923 constitution with the 1930 constitution. That only lasted a few years, however, before the 1923 constitution was reinstated.
The Egyptian people have remained proud of the 1923 constitution, which was a peer to the European constitutions of the age and an embodiment of the modern world that emerged after World War I. After its reinstatement in the mid-1930s, the 1923 constitution remained as the guarantor of rights and freedoms, the guardian of democracy, and the expression of the popular will until the 1952 Revolution.
Despite the sweeping changes the revolution brought, the essence of the constitution continued to breathe in the Egyptian and, indeed, Arab consciousness generation after generation, offering inspiration and guidance in the present and acting as a beacon for the future.
Under the 1923 constitution, prime minister Yehya Ibrahim lost his seat as the representative of Minya Al-Qamh in parliament. The ballot box thus reaffirmed both democracy and the transformation that had taken place in the Egyptian character. Yet, while this venerable constitution left no flaw in the system unaddressed, it did so within the framework of a monarchical system. It was therefore necessary to abolish it in order to create the groundwork for the post-1952 republic.
There followed a series of constitutional declarations in order to remedy problems that cropped up in the post-1952 era and then a number of temporary and permanent constitutions as the country evolved. But the 1923 constitution continued to shine as an icon of the paradigmatic shift in modern Egyptian political thought.
I urge all those who may have opinions, commentary, or analysis to offer on the 1923 constitution or any of its articles and provisions to share them as widely as possible because this year marks the centenary of the 1923 constitution. We should take this occasion to engage in a genuine and extensive discussion of the topics and issues the constitution raises.
Let us recall that the three branches of government – the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary – that we have in Egypt today are an extension of that early constitution. Let us always bear in mind that actions taken in the contexts of political parties, civil rights and liberties, and civic duties can all trace their roots back to the 1923 constitution.
Moreover, as we read that text written ten decades ago, we may feel that it is speaking to us about Egypt today. It is a document that was ahead of its times. It is a faithful translation of the need for an Egyptian parliamentary system of government emanating from the principle that the people are the source of power in the country. In this framework, political parties are “support instruments,” as constitutional scholars such as the eminent French political scientist Maurice Duverger have put it.
Law is a living thing. It grows and evolves, and as it does so it needs to be reviewed and revised in a way that does not infringe on established rights and liberties and the principle of the rotation of executive authority enshrined in the constitution.
Let us take this occasion to remember that the freedom provided in the constitution that emerged from the 1919 Revolution offered room for the great Egyptian thinker Abbas Mahmoud Al-Akkad to say on the floor of parliament that “we are ready to crush the greatest head in the country if he infringes on the constitution or oversteps his constitutionally established bounds.”
Although Al-Akkad would later pay a price for his courage, the incident affirmed that the space for freedom was trying to expand under a monarch who was attempting to run the country without heed or concern for the conditions and will of the popular classes and despite the widespread aspiration for reforms that would improve the lives and welfare of the people and their country.
Egypt of the era of the 1923 constitution saw many national leaders, among them Saad Zaghloul, the leader of the 1919 Revolution, and Mustafa Al-Nahhas. It saw the birth of major political and mass movements, from the nationalist movement embodied by the Wafd Party to the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, as well as political parties representing minorities. It was an era when politics and culture were intertwined and that gave rise to figures like Ahmed Lutfi Al-Sayed, Mohamed Hussein Heikal, Taha Hussein, and other great intellectual luminaires who enriched and enlightened sociopolitical and cultural and intellectual life in the country.
By the time the rift occurred in the Wafd Party in the 1940s, the national unity that was forged in the 1919 Revolution had fully taken root and become engrained in Egyptian consciousness. Thus, when Al-Nahhas fell out with Coptic politician Makram Ebeid, most of the Coptic members of the party stayed with Al-Nahhas while a large contingent of Muslim members went over to the Kutla (Bloc) Party formed by Ebeid.
What that signified was that the religious division in politics had disappeared. Political differences determined choices. That would not have happened had it not been for the 1923 constitution, the guardian of the values, traditions, and the principles of the 1919 Revolution.
Anyone who reads the text of the constitution and studies the period between the 1919 and 1952 Revolutions will sense the national unity, the principle of constitutional legitimacy, and the air of secularist liberalism that imbued every facet of life from politics and journalism to literature and the arts. That vibrant and dynamic spirit and its prolific creativity were the children of the constitution whose centenary we celebrate this year.
* The writer is a veteran diplomat.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly