Decoding Egypt's Constitutional Referendum

If you are confused about the political implications of the recent constitutional referendum in Egypt, you are not alone. Vociferous debates in Egypt's public sphere have addressed a multiplicity of issues, often clouding what the referendum is primarily about. Is the real issue at heart whether the current constitution should be rewritten or simply revised? Do critics object to the actual content of the amendments? How does citizens' trust in the military and its intentions factor in? Stripping down debates to determine the essential arguments of both the "yes" and "no" referendum camps helps clarify the situation.

What the referendum offers is a set of amendments to nine constitutional articles, the most notable provisions being those that shorten the term of the presidency in Egypt and limit the number of possible consecutive presidential terms; limit the president's power to declare and sustain a state of emergency; lift some of the most stifling restrictions on independent presidential candidates, thereby pluralizing presidential elections; and restore judicial oversight to elections. The amendments also pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections this summer and stipulate that the newly elected parliament must form a committee to rewrite the 1971 constitution within a six month timetable.  

While some Egyptians have raised objection to specific elements of the amendments, for example the clause stating that spouses of presidential candidates must be Egyptian, or criticize the package for leaving most of the president's sweeping powers in place, the real issue at stake is the length of Egypt's democratic transition. The "yes" camp, dominated by supporters of the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, claims to support the referendum mainly because it ensures a quick transition from military to civilian rule in accordance with the strict timetable the military had originally promised. Forging ahead with these reforms (if limited) promises stability and protects against any ambitions the military may have to cling to power, "yes" voters say.  

Opponents of the referendum, for example representatives from Egypt's liberal and leftist opposition, as well as from various youth movements, claim that the transition provided by the Saturday referendum is indeed too quick. Hasty parliamentary elections benefit political heavyweights such as the National Democratic Party, which remains intact despite the reshuffling of its leadership, and the Muslim Brotherhood. These organized political players would dominate parliamentary elections with their powerful constituencies, critics say, while nascent political forces struggle to meet the requirements to establish formal political parties and mobilize voters. Ultimately, under this process, the constitution would be rewritten by a composition of political forces that fails to embody pluralism and represent the democratic ideals of the revolution. This "no" camp suggests instead that an interim presidential council manage Egypt's democratic transition until a new constitution is in place and new political forces are given time to develop.

Additionally, whether or not the language of the referendum's amendment to Article 189 necessitates the re-drafting of a new constitution has sparked debates. While the "yes" camp claims that the provision paves the way for re-drafting, opponents to the legislation argue that loose wording will exempt the newly elected parliament from doing so. Furthermore, the "no" camp maintains that in principle, accepting mere amendments legitimizes the un-democratic 1971 constitution. They demand a complete constitutional overhaul as the first step towards meaningful reform.  

In the spirit of Egypt's political awakening, debates don't stop here. Citizens, political analysts, and political figures alike disagree on the real vs. imagined strength of the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood, for example. Whether the military seeks to hand over power quickly to preserve the revolution or preserve elements of the old political order under which it was privileged is another point of contention. Perhaps the only point on which Egyptians can agree is the novelty of a referendum whose results are not predetermined - an achievement that they tout with pride.  

Photo Credit: Sarah Grebowski

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Sarah Grebowski

Sarah Grebowski is a freelance political analyst and writer in Cairo. Previously, she researched under Dr. Amr Hamzawy at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Sarah focuses mainly on issues of Egyptian politics, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and social protest in the Arab world. While she enjoys living in the Middle East, she yearns for the comforts of America- including college sports, high speed internet, and bacon. Follow her blog, Cairo Comment, for more. http://grebowski.blogspot.com/

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