Egypt’s ruling generals hand down interim constitutional rules

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that two-thirds of the country’s eligible voters supported the amendments proposed. Instead of eligible voters, the statement should have been framed in terms of those who actually voted. Of Egypt’s 45 million eligible voters, about 18 million, or 41 percent, participated in the referendum. Of those, about 14 million, or 77 percent, supported the amendments. That means more than three-fourths of those who took part in the vote supported the changes. This version has been corrected.

March 23, 2011

Egypt’s military government handed down on Wednesday new constitutional rules designed to underpin parliamentary and presidential elections later this year and provide a legal framework for the army’s continued rule in the meantime.

The interim measures, which stand in for the constitution that was suspended after President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall Feb. 11, contain a promise of democracy in the months ahead and an eventual end to the absolute powers assumed by the Supreme Military Council of the Armed Forces. But for the moment, they keep military rule in place along with the hated emergency laws on which Mubarak relied for three decades to smother any challenge to his authority.

An announcement from the military council, relayed by the official Middle East News Agency, said the intent of the changes was to “organize authorities in the transitional phase.” But it did not detail the precise arrangements for, among other things, holding elections or writing a permanent new constitution.

The new constitutional rules flowed from changes approved by more than two-thirds of 18 million Egyptians who voted in a referendum Saturday. Among other steps, they make it easier to form political parties, limit executive powers and restrict presidents to two four-year terms.

As they have in the past, the ruling generals held out the promise of legislative elections in the months ahead, to be followed by a presidential vote and the naming of a committee to draft a permanent constitution for what Egyptians hope will be enduring democratic rule. But the generals did not lay out a timetable.

The timing of elections has become a political issue, with liberal secular political activists arguing that they need more time to organize into parties and establish themselves across the country. On the other side of the argument are the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s former political organization, the National Democratic Party, both of which have experienced operatives and have long been implanted in towns and villages across Egypt.

The approval by a strong majority of the changes proposed by the military was seen as a victory for these two groups and a setback for the loosely organized liberal groups that were at the forefront of the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Many Egyptians said their support for the amendments was driven by a desire for a swift return to normalcy and by what they feel is a lack of security since the revolution.

In apparent response to those concerns, the civilian cabinet approved and sent to the military for endorsement a decree that would outlaw any strikes or protests that would harm the economy. Although the military’s approval is uncertain, the proposed decree drew an immediate outcry on the Internet from commentators, who suggested it was just such demonstrations that drove Mubarak from power and ushered Egypt into a new era.

Shady Ghozali, a member of the Youth Revolution Coalition, said such a law would violate the human rights for which the revolution took place. “Peaceful demonstrations are among the basic human rights,” he told the Ahram Online Internet site.

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