Egypt Constitution: What it Means for the U.S.

The referendum on Egypt's new constitution (text here) concludes on Saturday (live blog courtesy of Ahram Online). Early indicators from last week's first stage show a modest lead for the "yes" vote, despite widespread reports of fraud. The High Elections Committee is expected to announce final results within 48 hours after polls close. Yet with the lowest voter turnout since the revolution and bitter factionalism across the country, the referendum is far more likely to spark further turmoil than resolve it.

If approved, Egypt's constitution will be vague and incomplete, but moderate enough to avoid ruffling feathers in Washington. However, it is not accepted by large and growing segments of Egyptians who view it as the latest proof of the Muslim Brotherhood's attempt to dominate political life after the revolution. Rejection of the constitution and of the Brotherhood's monopoly on power is likely to prolong the country's instability, which will trouble American policymakers concerned with vital interests such as counterterrorism, Israel, and the Suez Canal.

The United States has been relatively quiet on Egypt during the past month, even as President Mohamed Morsi seized extraordinary powers on November 21 to ensure the Islamist-dominated committee charged with writing the constitution could finish its work without interruptions from the courts. The final draft was completed in a marathon final session on November 29, despite the withdrawal of more than a quarter of its members, mostly liberals and representatives of the Coptic Christian church.

The draft constitution has been called everything from “the best constitution Egypt has ever known” by Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie to the “constitution of blood” by opposition protesters. It is far from the glowing beacon of freedom that most revolutionaries probably had in mind when they were facing down Mubarak's thugs in squares across the country.

Opponents complain that the constitution does not do enough to protect the rights of women, children, religious minorities, and the press. They object to the increased role of religion in the constitution, even though it maintains the language of the 1971 constitution by stating "the principles of Sharia are the principal source of legislation." The vagueness of this and other phrases, such as "The State is keen to preserve the genuine character of the Egyptian family, its cohesion and stability, and to protect its moral values, all as regulated by law" in Article 10, leaves the door open to manipulation of individual freedom by religious extremists.

The draft constitution enshrines the authority of the Egyptian army, separating its budget from government oversight and protecting its significant industrial activities. Some opponents also object to the sweeping powers it gives to the president.

These considerable areas of disagreement mean that even if the constitution technically passes through today's referendum, the work of building broad societal consent still lies ahead. In the new Egypt, that is what will ultimately guarantee stability, not some document that many ordinary people cannot even understand. To build a productive relationship with post-revolutionary Egypt, the U.S. must accept that and act accordingly.