Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Multiple, single-author constitution drafts good for Egypt

Photographed by Fouad Elgarnousy

Deputy PM Ali Selmy has drafted constitutional principles for Egypt, outlining a secular yet tolerant civil state.

His draft comes as the latest of several proposals to be put forward over the summer, and signals a healthy debate among political leaders and civil society organizations.

It also highlights what history has proven works: constitutions (and constitutional drafts) should be written by individuals.

Don't get me wrong - there should be a healthy debate around a Constitution, and proposals should be vetted, discussed, and amended by all players involved in the process. Yet the kind of careful, tight writing a constitution requires cannot--and should not--be written in a crowd.

Again, I turn to American constitutional history.  (I pause here again to make the point that if we measure constitutional success by its long-term acceptance by its own people, American history is a good place to look to derive a normative standard or normative model for constitution creation.  This may allow Arabs to avoid those aspects of American constitutionalism they dislike, while drawing on one of its greatest successes - its perceived legitimacy by Americans.  See this article on Aljazeera for an interesting perspective on how Arabs should not pattern their constitutions after America's.)

Several constitutional plans were proposed at the constitutional convention, each authored or headed by one individual - the Virginia Plan, presumed to be authored by James Madison, the Patterson Plan, the Pinckney Plan, and the Hamilton Plan.  One plan, the Virginia Plan, was discussed and debated at length by the convention.  Yet in the end, in the highly-important Committee of Detail, all plans (except perhaps the extreme Hamilton Plan) were used in drafting the Constitution.

The report of the Committee of Detail, the Constitution's first working draft, and the later, stylistic changes reported by the Committee of Style were heavily influenced if not authored each by one individual: James Wilson and Gouverneur Morris, respectively.  These plans were subsequently debated and changed by the full committee to produce the final Constitution of the United States.

Why is it important that drafts be authored (in part or in full) by a solitary voice?  Continuity of ideas, fluidity of prose, tightness and simplicity--all of the elements that contribute to a good piece of writing.  Especially a constitution.  Constitutions written (instead of being amended) by a committee can be overly wordy and try to do too many things at once.  This is problematic for a legal document which will surely be the basis for many lawsuits.  Too, wordy constitutions will not be read nor understandable to the people it governs, and therefore hard for them and institutionalized watchguards to enforce.

So far, Egypt's many draft constitutional principles have largely avoided the pitfalls of group work-product.  It remains yet to be seen whether, when a constitutional committee is constituted, they will adhere to this sound policy.


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