Will Egypt vote 'Yes' or 'No' to constitutional amendments?

Salma Shukrallah, Tuesday 15 Mar 2011

Four days ahead of the referendum, concerns over hastily arranged elections, limitations, consequences and, in some cases, self interest continue to dominate the social and political scene

Men put up banner to protest against referendum planned for March 19 during rally in Cairo
'No' campaigners set up a banner that reads: "Amendment to the constitution means the continuation of Mubarak's regime. Announcement of a new constitution means the success of the revolution". REUTERS/Amr Abdallah

The constitutional amendments proposed by a council of legal experts and set to go before a referendum on 19 March is stirring much debate and discussion in Egypt. As campaigning heads into its last few days, opposition groups and figures from the ranks of the revolution have come out against the amendments while some established political actors are with the “Yes” campaign.

Political organizations and parties have all declared their stand with most supporting the “No” campaign. The Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party (NDP), on the other hand, are both in favour of the amendments. Social blocks such as the Salafis and the Copts are leaning one way or the other, with the latter mostly campaigning for a “No” vote and the former for “Yes”.

However, the reasons given for each stand are not only related to the content of the amendments but to their limitations, consequences, timing and the identity of the council which formulated them.

The proposed amendments are limited to nine articles, which many deem to be insufficient as they fail to limit the power of the president, the very same powers which could create another “Mubarak”, the dictator ousted by the revolution. Conversely, others argue that the amendments are only a temporary measure and as such do not need to include all the changes that have been requested as the Constitution will be completely redrafted after parliamentary and presidential elections are held. This point has proven to be the most contentious; those opposing the amendments say that a redrafted Constitution will not be representative.

Among the groups campaigning for a “No” vote is the National Front for Justice and Democracy. For Mohamed Waked, a member of the front, the amendments betray the spirit of Egypt’s revolution. “The revolution wanted to dismantle the regime. The amendments recreate the regime. The amendments stipulate that the newly elected parliament will be the entity responsible for drafting the new constitution. The whole game is set so that only the most organized political organizations will win in the next elections.

“Effectively that means that a revamped version of the NDP and the Brotherhood will together win the majority of Parliament. That means that they will be the ones responsible for drafting the new constitution. On top of that, voting “Yes” for the amendments actually includes a direct acceptance of roughly 200 points in the new constitution; it brings “Mubarak’s Constitution” back in the act of amending it. The current Constitution should be completely rewritten by a council that represents Egyptian society as a whole with all its different political spectrums and that includes a fair percentage of women and Copts.”

The National Front for Justice and Democracy is currently working with the Popular Committees in Defence of the Revolution in distributing flyers and posters explaining why people should vote “No” in the 19 March referendum. They have created short videos of prominent figures, including judges such as Tahany El-Gebaly, deputy president of the Supreme Constitutional Court, and Zakaria Abd El-Aziz, president of the Courts of Appeal, as well as film stars Amr Waked and Aser Yassin.   

When discussing her reasons for opposing the proposed amendments, Judge Tahany El-Gebaly stresses their failure to curb the presidential powers which “could have been mitigated by amendments and did not need more time as they argued.”

El-Gebaly adds that it is not certain that the reformed constitution would then be rewritten as the proposed amendments only provide the new president and elected assemblies (Parliament and Upper House) the opportunity to write a new constitution, rather than obliging them to do so.

Despite this, many, including the Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest organized opposition group, argue that if the amendments are not passed now the military will rule for a longer period, halting a democratic transition of power.

Mohamed Osama, a member of both the Brotherhood and the Revolution Youth Coalition, says “the path put forward by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is the shortest one towards a democratic transition and will help regain the country’s stability as soon as possible. I think people’s fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will dominate is illegitimate because we already declared that we would only be running for 30-40 per cent of the seats and no more.”     

The Brotherhood’s position has been criticized by some, arguing that they are using people’s fear of the military to pass the amendments since they stand to gain the most from them. The new parliament that rewrites the Constitution is expected to be made up largely of the Brotherhood, with other opposition groups not yet ready to compete in elections.

Osama counters this notion by adding that the Brotherhood has proposed that opposition groups jointly nominate a unified list of candidates, ensuring that together they would form 70 per cent of parliament.

Endorsing the “Yes” campaign is not the sole preserve of the Brotherhood and its supporters. Influential bloggers Alaa Abdelfattah and Nawara Negm as well as human rights advocate Ahmed Seif are encouraging people to vote for the amendments as they fear that the army has over used its authority while in power, especially by trying civilians in military courts. They believe a “Yes” would bring the army’s power to an end.

According to Ahmed Seif, “the content of the amendments are good although they do not include all the articles that need to be amended. It gives presidential candidates more liberty to run and also states that the emergency law can only be applied for no longer than six months only with the permission of the parliament and after a national referendum. I think we should vote “Yes” because the military should not stay any longer in power; especially that after it became obvious that it abuses its authority. The amendments will allow the military to leave power and an elected parliament rewrite a new constitution. I think that leaving the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to form a committee to draft a new constitution will not be as democratic as if one is drafted by an elected Parliament.”

For others, the fear is that if the amendments are not passed, Egypt will remain in its current state of flux. Rather than fearing power in the hands of the army, many believe that the lack of government has rendered the country unstable.   

On the other hand, Egypt’s Coptic community has expressed fear of the expected consequences of the amendments. Many Egyptian Christians argued from the day the constitutional reform committee was formed that it was dominated by Islamist leaning figures. One Egyptian Christian wrote on Facebook that “El-Baradei is against, Amr Mousa is against, Ayman Nour is against, Hisham Bastawisy is against, Tharwat Badawy is against, Tahany El-Gebaly is against, Amr Hamzawy is against, Judges Club is against, the Revolution Youth Coalition is against, the Wafd party is against, the Ghad party is against, the Nasserist party is against, Naguib Sawiris is against…the only ones saying “Yes” to the amendments are the MB and the remnants of the NDP…what will you say?”

Other campaigners for the "Yes" vote are the Wasat (Center) and Labour parties, both of whom are Islamist parties, a fact that worries many including the Copts. 

The Youth Coalition has also taken a stand against the amendments, calling on people to vote “No”. Although the Brotherhood is part of the coalition, the majority within have decided against amendments fearing that the remains of the NDP will dominate and the new constitution will not be a representative one.

On a different note, El-Gebaly has also objected to that amendments on grounds that they discriminate against women and non-Egyptians. Article 75 stipulates that the president’s "wife" should not hold a foreign passport, thereby assuming that the president is a man.

Apart from the content and consequences of the amendments, their timing and the way they have been proposed has come in for heavy criticism by both camps. Procedures as to how and where to vote have not been clearly explained or announced nor have the amendments themselves been publicly debated fully, leaving many lost as to where they stand.        

The lack of time has lead Ayman Nour, head of the Ghad party and a presidential candidate, to call for the referendum to be postponed. “For political and safety reasons more time is needed,” he explains. “It is too soon to have a referendum with the absence of any national security and people have not had the chance to discuss the contents of the proposed amendments. I expect “No” to be the majority vote because of this rush.”  

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