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An anti-Morsi protester runs to throw a tear gas canister back, during clashes with riot police at Tahrir Square in Cairo Nov. 27, 2012. (MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS)
An anti-Morsi protester runs to throw a tear gas canister back, during clashes with riot police at Tahrir Square in Cairo Nov. 27, 2012. (MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/REUTERS)

Adnan R. Khan

Egypt, like Pakistan before, is making its constitution a work of fiction Add to ...

A decade ago, one didn’t need prescience to gauge what would happen in Pakistan. Back then, a military dictator with a head full of saviour complexes decided his country needed him more than it needed stable democratic institutions. Pervez Musharraf, the self-appointed chaperone of Pakistan’s journey to enlightened moderation, had had an epiphany: Without him and his progressive vision, Pakistan would devolve into obscurantism and chaos. So he did what all dictators do: he changed the constitution to guarantee his position of absolute power.

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What resulted was expected: Pakistan devolved into chaos.

In Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi has embarked on a similar path. When Mr. Morsi decreed legislative powers for himself and freed himself from the burdens of judicial oversight last week, he claimed to be acting on behalf of Egypt’s democratic transformation. “The people wanted me to be the guardian of these steps in this phase,” he said in a written statement, adding that it was his duty to “protect the revolution.”

In the aftermath, what has happened is telling: The divide between Islamists and secularists has deepened; the legitimacy of Mr. Morsi’s presidency has been brought into question; and the process of writing a new constitution – a document meant to unite – has been thrust into dangerous polemics.

Mr. Morsi has argued that his move will in fact speed up the drafting of a new constitution, leading to the formation of a new government and, ultimately, stability and prosperity. He’s right on the first two counts only.

Successfully drafting a constitution is no victory in itself, particularly if key players reject the rules of the political game it lays out. Pakistan offers a cautionary tale here: Its first constitution was adopted in 1956 and lasted all of two years. It was abrogated following a coup d’etat by Pakistan’s first president, Iskandar Mirza, a military man who distrusted civilian leaders and worried that the civilian-drafted constitution gave too much power to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

“I have done best to administer in the difficult task of arresting further deterioration [of Pakistan] and bringing order out of chaos,” he announced in a radio address to the nation in 1958, eerily similar to Mr. Morsi’s recent statements.

No doubt Mr. Mirza, like Mr. Morsi, believed what he was saying. His actions, however, would resonate far more profoundly than his words. Pakistan’s second constitution, drafted under military rule and adopted in 1962, lasted seven years. The path to its demise was the same as the first: an expedient way of sidestepping legal obligations for a dictatorship convinced that it had better ideas.

The current Pakistani constitution, adopted in 1973, is the inheritor of that capricious legacy, a victim of the whimsical history of constitution-making in Pakistan. It has gone through so many changes that what’s supposed to be the foundation of national unity has degraded into little more than a diary of dictatorial rule.

Every Pakistani dictator – both civilian and military – has etched his personal legacy into the country’s constitution. In a mere three decades, it has been subjected to nineteen major amendments, pushing Pakistan’s government structure from a parliamentary system to semi-presidential and back again in two complete rotations, or limiting the power of the judiciary, or entrenching the role of the military in politics.

By comparison, since its adoption in 1982, Canada’s constitution has added ten relatively minor amendments, such as allowing a fixed-link bridge to replace the ferry service to Prince Edward Island (1993) or changing the name of the “Province of Newfoundland” to the “Province of Newfoundland and Labrador” (2001).

All attempts to institute major changes have failed.

This is significant. A constitution is not simply a collection of rules and guidelines for governance. It is a spirit and a belief, a rallying point for national unity. It is sacred, in the secular sense of the word.

“The strength of the constitution,” Albert Einstein once said, “lies entirely in the determination of each citizen to defend it. Only if every single citizen feels duty bound to do his share in this defence are the constitutional rights secure.”

Pakistan failed to produce and protect a constitution its people would defend. Mr. Morsi in Egypt, by turning the constitution-making process into a personal project is, perhaps unwittingly, doing the same.

A decade from now, if things continue as they are, it’s not difficult to imagine where Egypt might stand: an artificial democracy balanced precariously on a bloated and unwieldy constitution lacking any popular legitimacy, perpetually in danger of collapse.

Adnan R. Khan is a writer and photographer based in Islamabad.

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