“Egypt is the gift of the Nile for Egyptians and the gift of Egyptians to humanity.” Thus begins the new Egyptian constitution, which, according to preliminary results, was approved by 97.7 per cent of voters this week. The percentage of voters who didn’t read the full document probably also ranges well above ninety—in conversations with many Cairenes, I met only one person who said he had read the whole thing. It’s hard to blame the others. The constitution opens with a strange, rambling preamble that in translation stretches for more than thirteen hundred words, mentioning, in the following order, Allah, Moses, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, the Prophet Muhammad, Muhammad Ali Pasha, Refaa the Azharian, Ahmed Orabi, Mostafa Kamel, Mohamed Farid, Saad Zaghloul, Mostafa el-Nahhas, Talaat Harb, and Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Nile inundates three of the first six sentences. It’s a preamble to everything—not just the constitution but human civilization itself: “In the outset of history, the dawn of human consciousness arose and shone forth in the hearts of our great ancestors, whose goodwill banded together to found the first central State that regulated and organized the life of Egyptians on the banks of the Nile.”
The new document replaces the previous constitution, which was prepared under the government of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who became Egypt’s first democratically elected President, in the summer of 2012. Last year, after massive demonstrations across the nation on June 30th, Morsi was deposed by the military, and his constitution was suspended. But there are many similarities between these two constitutions. Under Morsi, the preamble struck a similar lofty tone; it referred to “the timeless Nile” and ran on for almost nine hundred words. It described itself as the product of “the same civilization that gave humanity the first alphabet, that opened the way to monotheism and the knowledge of the Creator.” Nowadays, it reads like a preamble to hubris—long-winded references to history and culture in a document that died within six months. (The world’s oldest functioning democratic constitution, that of the United States, has a fifty-two-word preamble that does not make a single mention of the past.) In a single century, Egypt has had nine or ten constitutions, depending on how you count them. It has held three constitutional referendums since the Egyptian Arab Spring began, on January 25, 2011.
Along the way, the definition of the revolution has changed. In the 2012 constitution, the first sentence of the preamble included the words “Tahrir Square,” which do not appear in this year’s version. Now the official term is “the January 25 – June 30 Revolution.” There are several references to Christianity, which the Morsi-era preamble did not mention at all. And Morsi’s included the following sentence, which has not been repeated in the new preamble: “Our Armed Forces form a patriotic, professional and neutral national institution that does not interfere in political affairs.”