Critics say Egypt getting crash course in constitutional confusion

March 14, 2011

If it’s true that Egypt pulled off a so-called Facebook revolution, then the nation is about to confront a status change in its relationship with democracy: “It’s complicated.” Very.

On Saturday, 40 million Egyptians — roughly half the population — will be eligible to vote in a referendum on a raft of amendments to the nation’s now-suspended constitution. With the voting scheduled five weeks after the old regime was toppled, pundits and politicians have expressed deep concern that citizens are ill prepared to fully comprehend what the amendments mean.

The outcome is very much in doubt, with some of the same figures who led the opposition to President Hosni Mubarak now calling for “no” votes on the referendum to signal discontent with the hasty, patchwork process. Critics say the rush to balloting works against democracy because it risks vote fraud, disruption and intimidation of the electorate, in part because overall security is still not up to strength to ward off attacks by members of the former regime.

“It’s too tight a time frame for the first democratic test of Egypt since the democratic revolution,” Amr Hamzawy, an Egyptian political scientist and research director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said. “We haven’t even seen the final amendments yet.”

Hamzawy said the balloting should be postponed for several weeks. Others also have called for longer delays to completely revamp Egypt’s governing document, rather than taking a piecemeal approach. Under the timeline laid out by the country’s ruling military council, the Saturday referendum will be followed by parliamentary elections and presidential balloting in relatively short order.

The referendum, which official media said would be supervised by 16,000 judicial authorities with assistance from the police, is the first in decades that doesn’t amount to a sham whose outcome is controlled by the ruling party. The most significant of the proposed amendments would curb the runaway executive powers exercised for more than 30 years by Mubarak, who was overthrown Feb. 11. These would limit future Egyptian presidents to two four-year terms, allow for easier formation of political parties and provide legislative and electoral checks on attempts to declare lengthy periods of emergency rule.

As such, the amendments would appear to partly satisfy demands of protesters who brought down Mubarak. But that hasn’t guaranteed support for the measures.

The eight amendments have to be voted up or down in a bloc, which doesn’t suit some groups, who wanted voters to be able to endorse them individually. Some critics have called for a “no” vote as a signal that the old constitution should be scrapped — essentially saying that putting a new pro-democratic gloss on the constitution is like grafting healthy skin on a rotting corpse.

“The constitution as we know it now is very faulty,” said Ghadar Sharbander, a board member of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. “We consider this constitution not valid. And therefore there is no reason to amend it — it needs a complete rewrite.” The organization said it opposes the amendments and will closely monitor the referendum, but it is not urging a boycott.

A coalition of six youth groups charting Egypt’s future also supports an entirely new constitution and is urging voters to veto the amendments. “The problem with the current constitution is that even after [adding] these partial amendments, there are still around 50 articles that grant powers to the president that the new amendments did not touch on,” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, 32, a member of the coalition.

Two candidates for the presidency have urged voters to reject the amendments: Mohamed ElBaradei, former chief of the UN nuclear watchdog agency, and Arab League head Amr Moussa. Meanwhile, the Wafd party has called for a boycott.

Two groups with the deepest and strongest organizational structures here — the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party — urge a “yes” vote. Getting the referendum out of the way would seem to benefit them politically in terms of being forerunners in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

The amendments were drafted by a committee of legal experts selected by Egypt’s interim military rulers, a process that Hamzawy called non-democratic in itself. The army has made no effort to explain its haste and it doesn’t officially entertain questions — it just issues communiqués through its Facebook page.

For the average citizen, voting on amendments in recent referendums only served to consolidate Mubarak’s power; the last one, in 2007, was rigged to pave the way for his son, Gamal, to succeed him. Another complicating factor is that 22 percent of Egypt’s population is illiterate, according to the education ministry.

“I am not interested in voting; my voice will make no difference,” said Haitham Essam, 21, who fixes computers. He hadn’t kept up on the referendum and besides, “I cannot close my shop for a whole day to vote.”

A Western diplomat here, speaking on the condition of anonymity to allow for candor, said the military seems eager to turn its governing role over to civilian leadership: “They want to be out of the business of running Egypt as soon as they can.”

leibyr@washpost.com

Special correspondents Muhammad Mansour and Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
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