As the time for the referendum on constitutional amendments quickly approaches, political debate is escalating about the efficacy of amending the 1971 Constitution which many believe no longer exists as the 25 January Revolution tore it down and replaced it with the legitimacy of the revolution that embodies the aspirations of Egyptians for a parliamentary democracy that promotes freedoms and blocks any possibility of returning to despotic dictatorship. These critics suggest rejecting the amendments or not voting in the referendum on Saturday.
Those who uphold the legitimacy of the revolution believe priority should be given to a new constitution that can be drafted in less than two months, and assert that the interim period should be extended to 18 months or two years, to allow rising revolutionary forces and new parties to gain strength and compete in elections and public service. They mostly fear that new parliamentary elections will usher in a combination of the Muslim Brotherhood, the remnants of the National Democratic Party, and clan and tribal loyalists in rural areas. They believe this would make it impossible to move towards a democratic parliamentary system.
But not everyone who deposed the former regime and participated in the Egyptian revolution shares this perspective, which at times is exaggerated or ignores national security concerns. Neither do they want to reject the proposed amendments and extend the interim period. They argue that the amendments will be effective in normalising political life and giving it a legitimate framework, which would quickly end the six-month interim phase led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that started on 11 February when the former president stepped down. The army is the one that suspended the constitution and which opened the door for amendments, and it is the one that has the right to reactivate the amended constitution.
Egypt is facing two choices, and despite their apparent divergence they both converge on one worthy goal, which is progress towards a new era, freedom, the dignity of the citizen, accountability, transparency, a balance between powers, and the peaceful progress of society and state. Hence, it is only a dispute about the mechanism of arriving at this higher goal of a genuine democratic system, and stamping out the remnants of the despotic regime that ruled the Egyptian people for more than four consecutive decades. Both sides agree in principle that a new constitution is needed to be compatible with the future, which will establish a new system of government whereby the powers of the president are curtailed and the leverage of other institutions increase, especially parliament, which is to be elected honestly.
The main problem is the shortness of time Egyptians have to investigate and study the effectiveness and importance of the suggested constitutional amendments, and how they would serve this higher goal. At the same time, calls for rejecting the amendments are prominent in many media outlets, the press and the Internet, and there is a tendency of these voices to undermine the revolutionary loyalty of those who oppose them. Meanwhile, calls supporting the amendments as a step towards normalising political life are almost absent.
Since the SCAF does not have its own media machine and does not impose its opinion on operating media outlets, preferring to leave the people to decide what they want, those supporting the amendments seemed to be a voiceless minority until the Muslim Brotherhood decided to support the amendments as a step towards restoring the legitimacy of the constitution and propelling the wheels of cautious peaceful transformation forwards.
Those supporting the constitutional amendments admit the flaws at the core of the 1971 Constitution, but do not feel these pose an obstacle to normalising political life in the specified time period. There is no need now to fear that a new president will exercise but the powers in place in the amended constitution. The cognizance of Egyptians and collective ability to revolt and impose change, and their scrutiny of the performance of officials on all levels, should be guarantee enough. The amendments call for forming a drafting panel within a specified time to write a new constitution, and the now guaranteed freedoms of Egyptians and inalienable rights for everyone are more guarantees, and so is the end of the role of State Security in terrorising citizens and pressuring society as a whole.
At the same time, the watchful eyes of the international community, closely monitoring how Egypt is transforming from despotism to democracy and freedom, are also part of a range of interconnected factors that ensure that the elected president will be interested in being remembered as the first president after the revolution who led the country towards a true democratic state supported by the people, not as a hated despot whose overthrow is warranted.
Amendment supporters also admit that the suggested amendments do not include the prolific powers of the president, but place important restrictions on them such as limiting the periods of emergency law to no more six months, and that it can only be extended if the people agree by referendum. They also curtail the president’s power to decide to appoint a vice president or not, forcing him to appoint one deputy or more within 60 days of his coming to power.
Supporters also know that the majority of suggested amendments focus on easing conditions for presidential candidates and limiting the president’s tenure to only eight years over two terms. They also give the Court of Appeals jurisdiction to arbitrate the legitimacy of parliament members and not leave it to the prerogative of parliament itself. In other words, the suggested amendments aim to prepare the country for an interim period led by civilians through honest and transparent elections moving towards the new era Egyptians have always aspired for.
Many of the powers of the president according to the 1971 Constitution are already distributed among laws pertaining to the judiciary, police, army and media. Curtailing them requires changing these laws. It might be better that after a new parliament is elected it takes the initiative — as the representative of the people — to change the laws to limit the powers of the president along the spirit of the new constitution that will be ratified later, and in step with the nature of the new parliamentary or presidential political system with limited powers.
This realisation means that approving the suggested amendments is nothing more than a step on a long road to build a new secure and stable Egypt. But it is a significant and important one that will protect national security to a greater degree than if the interim period is extended to one year or more, while the army continues to be deployed across the country and is required to resolve civilian issues in all sectors, which are complex by nature because of distortions during the previous regime.
The other important dimension is the quick and uncertain regional transformations that need attention, monitoring and appropriate decisions by those in charge of national security — most prominently the armed forces that carry the heavier burden of protecting the homeland at all its borders.
Getting through the current interim period and completely handing over power to elected civilians, namely an elected president who comes to power through honest elections and a parliament supported by the people, is enough to create a new and strong Egypt. It would be enough to end this vague phase we are passing through, and guarantee there will be severe consequences for anyone who attempts to violate the aspirations of the Egyptian people and their rights.
If the interim period is extended, a council combining both civilians and military is formed, the chance of freely electing a parliament is lost or delayed, and the general sentiment of the country continues to be as vague as now, this would open the door to foreign blackmail, a plethora of foreign and domestic pressure, and would make it difficult to plan for revival within an acceptable timeframe. This would rob the revolution of its allure and Egypt would also lose a historic opportunity to be a model of peaceful, conscientious and ambitious revolutionary transformation that is lacking in the entire Arab region.
The referendum on the constitutional amendments is a historic opportunity for every Egyptian to participate with his opinion in creating a new Egypt, one that is democratic, looking to the future and fears nothing.
The writer is an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies