x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Referendum on constitution sees Egypt apprehensive

For the first time in living memory, Egypt's referendum tomorrow on proposed amendments to the constitution will be a vote without a clear outcome in prospect.

Mohamed ElBaradei, a potential presidential candidate in Egypt, is opposed to the referendum.
Mohamed ElBaradei, a potential presidential candidate in Egypt, is opposed to the referendum.

CAIRO // Whatever happens in tomorrow's national referendum on a package of proposed amendments to the Egyptian constitution, the vote will already be making a bit of history.

For the first time in living memory, Egyptians will hold a national vote uncertain of how it will turn out. To a people long accustomed to stage-managed elections where the result was never in doubt, the process is unsettling.

There is another reason for apprehension. Tomorrow's vote marks the point where, officially at least, Egyptian politics becomes complicated.

Until now, most of Egypt enjoyed the stark and unifying simplicity of the revolution, in which a diverse collection of political forces was able to rally around a one-sentence common cause: President Hosni Mubarak and his regime must go.

Now that Mr Mubarak and his police state have fallen, Egyptians face the daunting and complicated task of rebuilding their government and society. The referendum represents the first step in that transition - and just how long that rebuilding should take seems to be the primary philosophical dividing line in people's feelings towards the proposed amendment package.

Egyptian media has been dominated for the past week by a vigorous back-and-forth debate over the amendments. Given the primitive state of Egyptian polling, it is difficult to predict just which way the vote will go. One poll, conducted by the government-run Information Support Centre, found that 59 per cent of those questioned would reject the amendments.

On the surface, the eight amendments formulated by a military-appointed commission of legal scholars, satisfy many of the basic demands of the protesters who brought the old regime down. The proposed changes to the 1971 constitution would establish presidential limits of two four-year terms, eliminate obstacles to forming political parties and launching independent presidential campaigns, limit the once-dominant powers of the executive branch and make it much harder for future rulers to declare martial law.

Those changes are generally agreed upon by all Egyptian political actors. But there are more controversial amendments as well, including changes that would block anyone holding dual citizenship or married to a foreign citizen from becoming president.

The primary demarcation line between the pro and anti-amendment camps seems to be one of timing. Proponents of the amendments seek the fastest possible transition from military to civilian rule, ending the transitional reign of the Supreme Armed Forces Council and ushering the generals back to their barracks. The longer military rule continues, they argue, the greater threat of renewed public revolt or unrest.

"I want to see a completely new constitution eventually, but right now my priority is ending the rule of the generals," said Ahmed Atallah, 34, an electrician. "Once we have a democratically elected president and parliament, then we can revisit the constitutional file and really take our time."

Opponents of the amendments claim the whole process is happening too fast and say they are willing to endure a longer period of transitional military rule to give time for a complete rewriting of the constitution. "The 1971 constitution fell in the revolution. It has no legitimacy," said Mohammed Salah, a young activist speaking this week at a press conference called by a coalition of secular activist groups that were instrumental in the revolution. "The people want a completely new constitution."

The prospective presidential candidate, Mohammed ElBaradei, has added his voice to those of the dissenters, saying in a long televised interview that the proposed changes were "superficial" and that simply grafting changes onto the existing constitution would be "an insult to the revolution". Mr ElBaradei's presumptive presidential rival, the Arab League chief Amr Moussa, has also come out against the amendments.

The only significant political player that has endorsed the changes is the Muslim Brotherhood, a development that essentially turns the referendum into a test of the venerable Islamist group's street power. Flyers distributed throughout Egypt by the Brotherhood are notably short on the usual religious references, but urge its followers to vote yes "for the sake of Egypt's stability".

Critics of the group charge that the Brotherhood is trying to fast-track the country towards parliamentary elections in September, where its existing grassroots machine would give it a significant advantage before newer political forces have a chance to solidify and organise themselves.

The Brotherhood has worked closely with the Supreme Armed Forces Council since Mr Mubarak's departure, sparking fears in some circles of a nascent Brotherhood-military axis. A former Brotherhood parliamentarian served on the commission that drafted the amendments, and the group was headed by a prominent judge who is viewed as close to the Islamists.

Whatever the outcome, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the feisty amendment debate is that nobody is pushing for a boycott. It is difficult to see anything but good in Egyptians peacefully and passionately disagreeing about the future of their country.