"Personally, I am going to vote against these amendments; it is not that I don’t like them all, but there are things there that I don’t like, and given that it is a yes or no referendum, I will vote no," said Wael, a civil servant in his early 40s.
Speaking as he drank his café latte and smoked apple-flavoured shisha
at a café in Zamalek, the upper middle class and well read Wael argued the case against a package of limited constitutional amendments drafted 10 days ago by a committee of legal and constitutional experts, largely Islamists, to set the rules for the next presidential elections — the first ever free multi-candidate elections in the history of Egypt.
An observant Muslim, Wael says he is uncomfortable with the fact that all members of the drafting committee have a clear Islamist orientation and that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, currently ruling the country since Hosni Mubarak was toppled on 11 February, decided to take the amendments to a referendum without accommodating the reservations that have been made over recent days regarding these amendments.
"We were promised that the amendments would be subject to extensive debate and that they would be redrafted to accommodate concerns expressed in this debate. But this did not happen," Wael said.
Wael's concerns are substantive. "How come they specify that the candidate should necessarily be a man when they suggest that the "wife" (rather than just spouse) of the candidate should be Egyptian," he asked. Wael is also uncomfortable with the exclusion to dual-national Egyptians from running for the top executive post. "Many Egyptians, of the younger generations especially, have a second nationality because they were born overseas to parents who emigrated. Why exclude them?"
But Wael's most serious concern with the amendments is about the "discrepancy" he finds in the demands made for the candidature of a party member as opposed to an independent. "According to these amendments, a party member whose party has as little as one seat in parliament can run for president, while an independent needs the support of 30 MPs. To me, this is about equating one person to 30 people and I find little logic in it."
Wael is not untypical among those who are going to vote No on 19 March. A group of over 50 individuals who took part in a seminar organised Monday by the Egypt International Economic Forum on the constitutional amendments were similarly sceptical. "How many in this room would vote Yes?" asked Ashraf Swelam, the forum's director, at the end of a two-hour session on the issue. None of those present raised a hand.
Many suggested to the speakers — political scientists Hassan Nafaa and Amr Elchobaki along with Constitutional Court Vice-Chairman Tahani El-Gebali — that a message be passed to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to delay the referendum date, to allow more time for a wider debate and maybe further amendments.
But Nafaa, Elchobaki and Gebali were not of the same mind on the constitutional amendments. Elchobaki, who argued that "overall the amendments offer a step forward on the road towards democratisation," seemed more comfortable with the package than Nafaa and Gebali, on the basis that the amendments have reduced restrictions on nominations for the post of president introduced by constitutional amendments passed in 2005 and 2007.
For Nafaa, however, it was pointless to measure these amendments by the criteria of the pre-January Revolution. "Before, we were looking for any window of opportunity to reduce the limitations, but now we cannot act as if nothing has happened and as there was no revolution," Nafaa said.
The concerns of Nafaa — and also Gebali — are similar to those of Wael. Both have also other issues, including "the ambiguous language of the amendments regarding the nature of the proposed committee of 100 MPs/individuals that would be entrusted with writing a new constitution", and "the elimination of the supervision of the Court of Cassation over elections in favour of the Constitutional Court" when the former is a larger and elected body as opposed to the latter which is a much smaller and appointed.
Nafaa and Gebali shared the opinion that more time is needed before the referendum is held.
And while appreciating the wish of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to complete the process of transition of power in six months, during which both legislative and presidential elections would be held, Nafaa and Gebali called for more time to allow for the resurrection of political life in Egypt — if only to ensure that the next parliament would not be controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the National Democratic Party, which was part of the apparatus of dictatorship under Mubarak.