Nathan Brown has a terrific op-ed in the Guardian here. He makes the excellent point that there will be far too much attention, both inside and outside Egypt, to the constitutional provisions governing Islam. Such provisions are always very vague, and whether the formula is that Islam is “the leading force” or “the basis of law” or “the source of law” is often of much less relevance to actual constitutional operation than is the question of who gets to interpret the clauses. Brown thinks instead that the key issues are likely to be the structure of the political system and the independence of the various monitors and guardians, including the media and the courts.
Brown is surely right. The role of Islam in constitutions seems to me to be of only symbolic importance. But symbols have enormous political consequences for whether or not a constitution is ultimately passed and accepted. In this regard, it is a good thing that the formula adopted are usually written at such a high level of abstraction as to allow great flexibility. While from a liberal (or Coptic) perspective it would be far better if Egypt’s ultimate constitution were simply silent on the issue of Islam, that seems unlikely. In a world of second-best, abstraction may be as much as form of minority protection as more structural institutional protections.