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Egypt's yes or no choice
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 03 - 2011

This weekend's referendum on amendments to the constitution has polarised Egypt's political scene, with Islamists urging people to vote for and secular forces urging them to reject the amendments, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
With only two days to go to the referendum on the proposed amendments to the country's constitution, Egypt's political forces are much divided about the vote. The country's Islamist forces, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, have opted for a "yes" vote, while secular trends are sticking to a decision to vote "no".
"This is the first step on a long journey out of the bottleneck we have been stuck in for years towards a period of stability," Brotherhood spokesman Mohamed Mursi told a press conference on 12 March.
The newly approved Al-Wasat Party, a moderate Islamist party with Brotherhood leanings, has also opted for a "yes" vote, with its chairman Abul-Ila Madi arguing that the constitutional amendments, proposed by an ad hoc committee on 26 February, are the best option for moving the country towards full-fledged democracy.
Even radical Islamists such as cousins Aboud and Tarek El-Zomor, members of the banned Jihad Party that masterminded the killing of late president Anwar El-Sadat in October 1981, said on 12 March, the day they were released after 30 years in jail, that the constitutional amendments proposed by a committee led by reformist judge Tarek El-Beshri were "a step in the right direction towards a new democratic Egypt."
Ironically, diehard members of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) also announced on 12 March that they would be voting "yes" to the amendments. NDP Secretary-General Mohamed Ragab said that "all the party's members are urged to say yes because these amendments are a remarkable step on the road towards a democratically elected parliament and president."
Under the 11 proposed amendments -- eight amended, one cancelled and two added -- the presidential term would be reduced to four years with a two-term limit (Article 77). Future presidents would need to appoint a vice president within 60 days of taking office (Article 139). Presidential candidates would need either to secure the support of 30 members of the two houses of the country's parliament or the backing of 30,000 eligible voters across at least 15 governorates, or they would need to be nominated by a registered political party with at least one member elected to either the People's Assembly, the lower house of parliament, or the Shura Council, the upper chamber (Article 76).
The proposed amendments also necessitate the president be at least 40 years of age, and of Egyptian parents and no other nationality, and not married to a non-Egyptian (Article 75). They state that elections must take place under full judicial supervision (Article 88), and they give the Court of Cassation -- the country's highest judicial authority -- the final say about the legality of the membership of parliaments (Article 93), while also stating that the two houses should nominate a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution for the country (Article 189).
Article 179 of the present constitution empowering the president to refer civilians to military tribunals has been abolished as a step towards eliminating the 30-year-old emergency law. If they are approved in Saturday's referendum, the changes will lay the groundwork for parliamentary elections in June and a presidential vote in August or September.
However, in contrast to the "yes" vote supported by the Islamists, most secular political forces are saying that they are against the proposed amendments, urging voters to say "no" to them. These forces have been joined by several human-rights organisations, as well as judges, constitutional law professors and independent political analysts and activists, notably members of the Youth of the 25 January Revolution movement.
The country's two main presidential hopefuls -- present Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa and ex-chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Mohamed El-Baradei -- have also expressed their opposition to the proposed amendments. El-Baradei has gone so far as to describe the amendments "as an insult to the achievements of the 25 January youth revolution," arguing that "an interim presidential council be tasked with drafting a new constitution within one year" instead and urging the cancellation of the present referendum.
For his part, Moussa has argued that "the best option for now is that a president be elected for only one four-year term, during which a new constitution would be drafted, a new parliament elected and the country gradually make a transition towards full democracy."
Secular political forces have charged that "personal and opportunist ends" have motivated Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist forces to approve the amendments. Amr Hamzawy, a senior researcher with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told a conference on 13 March that the "Muslim Brotherhood supports the 'yes' vote because the amendments propose organising the parliamentary elections ahead of the presidential polls."
"This is in the favour of the Brotherhood because it is the most organised force and is capable of sweeping to victory in parliamentary elections," Hamzawy said.
Responding to such attacks, the Brotherhood's most senior official, Essam El-Erian, stressed that the group was not aiming to achieve overwhelming victory in the upcoming parliamentary polls and that it would only be fielding candidates in 40 per cent of districts. "This clearly indicates that we are not aiming for a parliamentary majority," El-Erian said, adding that "the group does not intend to field a candidate in the next presidential polls."
However, Brotherhood statements have not been enough to dispel the fears of secularists, with liberal and leftist forces, including the Wafd, Tagammu, Karama and Arab Nasserist Parties insisting that they are strongly opposed to the amendments. El-Sayed El-Badawi, chairman of the Wafd, said that "the amendments are a kind of patchwork, and they by no means live up to the great expectations of the 25th January youth revolution."
El-Badawi proposed that "a constituent assembly be formed instead during a six-month period tasked with drafting a completely new constitution, necessary to ensure a smooth transition to real democracy."
For its part, the Tagammu Party, voice of the country's leftists, joined forces with Hamzawy in charging that the committee tasked by the ruling Higher Council of the Armed Forces (HCAF) with proposing the amendments had included members from Islamist tendencies and this in itself was reason to vote no in the referendum. "This is not to mention that the amendments fall short of stripping any elected president of his draconian powers enshrined in the constitution," said party chairman Rifaat El-Said, who argued that "under these amendments, a new pharaoh could be elected."
Over and above these disagreements, there remains the larger question of what will happen if the result of the referendum is a "no" vote. Should this happen, the Islamist parties warn, the "country will face great risks, on top of which will be the fact that the HCAF will be encouraged to stay in power, and this would not be a good thing for the transition towards democracy."
In El-Erian's words, "saying 'no' in the referendum would mean that Egypt would be placed under direct military rule, possibly for years, thus taking the country back to square one and to the situation before the 25 January revolution or to an even worse one." A no vote in the referendum "would mean greater political and economic bottlenecks for Egypt, further delaying the country's return to normality."
"To defuse chaos and disorder, the army could impose martial law to dictate discipline while the economy would be left to suffer," El-Erian added.
Mohamed Attia, head of the judicial committee in charge of supervising the poll, warned that "if the result of the vote is no, then Egypt will be in a kind of constitutional void, and the army will be forced to fill it," thus remaining in power longer than the promised six-month period. Deputy Prime Minister Yehia El-Gamal also indicated that "in the case of a no vote, all the proposed amendments will be considered null and void, and the army will issue a 'constitutional declaration' for the transitional period during which a new constitution is drafted."
For its part, the army has so far kept silent about what could happen if Saturday's vote is a negative one. On its Facebook page, the HCAF has urged all political forces to rise above their differences and to put the interests of Egypt first. "When we took power on 13 February, we issued a constitutional declaration that created a favourable climate for freedom and the transition for democracy, achieved mainly in the form of drafting a number of highly cherished constitutional amendments," a HCAF statement said.
According to Amr El-Shobaki, an Al-Ahram analyst, "the HCAF's statement clearly shows that it is urging people to vote yes in spite of the fact that in the same statement it calls on people to make up their own minds in the poll and says that the result will be respected whether it is yes or no."
El-Shobaki agreed that political interests had motivated the positions of the different political forces in the country, adding that these forces would do better to recognise that the amendments had been proposed by a panel of judicial and legal experts without political axes to grind.
"The majority of ordinary Egyptians want to get out of the current political and economic crisis, and because of this the result of the referendum will be yes," El-Shobaki predicted, adding that "those who urge people to say no on the grounds that the amendments are not enough to keep 'pharaohs' out of power are simply wrong: the amendment to Article 189 clearly states that the parliament should select a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution within six months."
Nevertheless, members of the "no" camp do not see dangers in voting against the amendments in Saturday's referendum. If the result is no, the Tagammu's El-Said said, "the army will have no choice but to surrender to demands to draft a new constitution. We have the power of the people and the power of Tahrir Square behind us, and these will have to be respected by the army."
For his part, El-Badawi said on behalf of the Wafd Party that a "no vote will be respected and will not damage relations with the army. A no vote will also go down in the country's history as an occasion on which Egyptians had the right to refuse what was presented to them."
On at least the first of these two points El-Shobaki agreed, saying that "I don't think a no vote will necessarily bring greater troubles to the country or bring about chaos, because the military will respect the result and expedite the drafting of a new constitution."
(Constitutional articles in question, p2)


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