Bassiouni: Egypt Facing Challenges of Legality and Legitimacy

By Sanya Mansoor and Trevor Harty – Reporting and Editing Interns

Cherif Bassiouni speaks with attendees of the event.

On Thursday, August 22nd, around 50 guests gathered in the Niagara Foundation’s office for a sold-out forum on the current turmoil in Egypt. The speaker: M. Cherif Bassiouni, who, in addition to being an emeritus Professor of Law at DePaul University’s College of Law, is no stranger to Egyptian affairs, having served as an advisor to then Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat during the Egyptian-Israel Peace Treaty negotiations.

He began by recounting an ancient parable about a group of blind men attempting to describe an elephant. As each man touches a different part of the elephant, they use the little information they have to make broad generalizations about the attributes of the entire creature, none of which are accurate. The moral of the story, as it pertains to the Egyptian crisis, is that it is impossible for one to comprehend Egypt without first seeing the big picture; the wide array of circumstances and disputes which have led us to this point. “If you say legitimacy is in the hands of the people, how can people exercise their legitimate rights if you don’t have the constitution in effect, you don’t have a way of impeachment or removing the president through a political process?” Bassiouni asked. “Suddenly you have a state of limbo,” Bassiouni continued.This is the predicament Egypt finds itself in today.

Fed up with the direction of the government, youth groups launched the Tamarod movement on April 28, 2013. They gathered more than 22 million signatures asking Morsi to step down from his presidency and reinstate the 1971 constitution. Negotiations between Morsi and the military failed, causing the Egyptians to take to the streets and, finally, to remove Morsi from power on July 3.

Obviously revolutionaries and military coups are far from ideal ways of conducting government, and yet, as Bassiouni explained, “Without a clear legal process people can’t channel their political energies and they work outside the process.” The thin and often blurred line between legality and legitimacy was a common theme of the forum. “Morsi was elected legally but was removed by a coup, not formal legality,” Bassiouni pointed out. “However, this was a coup that was based in popular will.” These are the kinds of complexities that make it nearly impossible to declare one side or the other as truly being “right” or “wrong”.

The subsequent protesting and bloodshed that followed Morsi’s upheaval epitomizes Egypt’s volatile political climate. “There are different groups of people who represent a deeply polarized and fragmented society,” Bassiouni noted. “This polarization has led to radicalization and destroyed whatever middle may exist. As we all know, in any conflict, the middle is the way to mediate between opposing sides.”



Cherif Bassiouni and Mert Taner, CFO of the Niagara Foundation

The floor was then opened for questions and light-hearted greetings and conversation. Bassiouni shared his insights on Islamic Law, noting  that “…a secular democracy can easily coexist with Islamic values.” He argued that the most important factor in Islamic Law was “…how one chooses to uphold Islamic values” as this can either strengthen or undermine a legal system. Bassiouni also felt strongly that a crucial step in the healing and rebuilding of Egyptian government would be the creation of “…institutional mechanisms such as national fact finding commissions” to get to the bottom of several ambiguous crises and to determine the group that can be considered culpable.

Yet merely placing blame upon the responsible parties is far from being a final solution to Egypt’s recovery. As Bassiouni put it, the question we must then ask is “…how can we change the discourse from, who did something bad today or yesterday, to what can we do tomorrow?” His words resonate with profound truth; In order to truly hope to understand and attempt to solve crises like those in Egypt, dialogue must be holistic, critical and unbiased.

The views and opinions expressed on The Falls are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Niagara Foundation, its staff, other authors, members, partners, or sponsors.