At the heart of the tumult in Egypt is the nature of its new constitution. On one side are Islamist political forces pressing for its passage as a step forward toward their vision of stability and democracy; on the other, liberals and moderates who see it as a threat to individual freedoms.
Many in Egypt agree that the proposed constitution is far from perfect. Liberal critics point out that the assembly chosen to write the constitution was selected by a parliament dominated by Islamist parties. Though that parliament was dissolved by the courts on a technicality, the Constituent Assembly it created continued its work and reflected the Islamist bent of the body that appointed its members. By the time the Constituent Assembly voted, at least 15 out of the 100 members had boycotted the final reading and vote on the draft. Not a single Christian participated in the vote; and of the 85 people who did vote, only four were women all four of them Islamists.
The draft constitution has also drawn criticism from human-rights organizations because of what is perceived to be limited protections against abuse of powers by the state. Many people are alarmed that some articles may pave the way for government intrusion into personal freedom. Human-rights advocates fear that some articles may be interpreted in ways that could limit the rights of women, minorities and children. The proposed constitution also misses the opportunity to organize the country's myriad court systems that span nearly half a dozen different judicial bodies.
However, while Egyptian liberals and Western observers may despair at the situation, others believe the legitimacy of the document should not be viewed in a vacuum, and the final document, flawed as it may be, should not detract from the process that produced it. There have been edifying elements and lessons in transparency for ordinary Egyptians. Most if not all of the sessions of the Constituent Assembly were broadcast on TV; the inner debates of the body were widely publicized in local press. The constitution was a purely organic Egyptian exercise of sovereignty. There was little outside interference or pressure. Despite calls for international technical expertise, this was an Egyptian constitution written by Egyptians for Egyptians. For a country that is new to politicking and consensus building, the constitution-writing process reflected that reality one in which proponents of the democratically prevailing ideology, in this case Islamist, drafted a charter that they felt they were given a mandate to do.
Like other draft charters at the time of their writing, including that of the U.S., Egypt's serves as a snapshot of where the country is, not where it can and should go. That will be the task of future interpretations of the constitution. It took close to 100 years for the U.S. to abolish slavery and give women the right to vote. It was two years after the U.S. Constitution was adopted that the U.S. enshrined the Bill of Rights the most sacred guarantor of individual rights. Many Egyptians may not like what they see today a country that is impoverished, chaotic and dominated by Islamist currents. But this is the reality that exists and the one that produced the document, which is itself not impervious to change.
Indeed, many Egyptians believe their country's constitution doesn't have to be perfect. Not right away. Getting the constitution passed may be part of a political endgame by President Mohamed Morsi, but it is not the end of the process. It is the beginning of a political and social evolution. Amendments to the constitution can be initiated by Egypt's parliament or the President. Almost every article in the proposed charter ends with the words "as regulated by law" an indication that, going forward, laws must be formed to frame and embody the idea of the article. Some observers believe that may give Islamists more legislative clout. However, it can work the other way around. If liberal forces get their act together and start winning seats in parliament, they too can shape those laws. Egypt's judiciary also has the ability to shoot down legal interpretations of the constitution.
It's worth noting that many functioning democracies, including the U.K., have no explicit constitution. A constitution does not ensure the state will abide by it nor will it prevent a dictatorship from emerging. Egypt had a constitution in place for decades, and yet despite that, Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors managed to co-opt it to build their authoritarian regimes. A constitution does not guarantee a democracy. And while Egypt may end up with a flawed constitution, that does not mean its future will be bereft of a vibrant democracy.
Mohyeldin, an NBC correspondent based in Cairo, was inducted into the TIME 100 in 2011