Egypt's referendum is a step toward democracy

Monday, March 21, 2011; 8:12 PM

THE MILITARY intervention in Libya over the weekend partly obscured an equally important landmark in the ongoing Arab revolution: Egypt's successful referendum on constitutional reform. While both the amendments and the political process that produced them were flawed, the referendum on Saturday was a clear democratic breakthrough. Fourteen million Egyptians - or about 40 percent of the electorate - turned out, a tripling of the usual participation in elections held by the now-overturned regime of Hosni Mubarak. Despite some irregularities, the vote appeared to be the fairest since before Egypt's last revolution, in 1952 - and maybe in the country's history.

The result was approval, by 77 percent of the voters, of eight constitutional amendments that eliminate some of the worst features of the Mubarak-era charter. Presidents will be limited to two terms in office, requirements for presidential candidates are loosened, and the use of authoritarian emergency laws will be curtailed. Had Mr. Mubarak himself proposed such changes, he would have been hailed for opening the way to genuine democracy in the Middle East's most influential country.

As it is, the result left most of the leaders of last month's popular revolution disappointed and worried about whether their cause will be slowly smothered. Most opposition organizations supported a "no" vote because they believed the reforms did not go far enough - and because they objected to the hasty and preemptory process by which the military council ruling the country is reshaping the political system. Military leaders have said that approval of the constitutional provisions will be followed by a quick march to elections for a new parliament, which would be charged with writing an entirely new constitution. Presidential elections will follow.

The military's sympathizers say the generals are eager to hand power to a civilian regime as soon as possible. But the opposition worries that quick elections cede a huge advantage to the only political forces that were able to organize under the Mubarak regime: the ruling party and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both campaigned hard for a "yes" vote on Saturday; neither has made a convincing commitment to liberal democracy. The "no" vote - 23 percent nationwide, rising to a high of 40 percent in Cairo - was one indication of the strength Egypt's secular liberal democrats might have in a parliament elected quickly.

Such concerns are one reason the United States and the European Union, which have said supporting Egypt's political transition is a top priority, should be quietly seeking to persuade the military to push parliamentary elections back as far as possible - to September rather than June, for example. Every week that new pro-democracy forces have to organize and promote their platforms will make the political playing field a little more level. In the end, they may not emerge as winners in the system the military is fashioning, but they must be given a fair chance to ensure that genuine democratic reform continues.

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