On March 19 Egypt is slated to enjoy its first free election in decades. Following the resignation of President Mubarak the Supreme Council for Military Affairs appointed a committee to draft amendments to the Constitution, according to the demands of the people. The proposed amendments will be put to a nationwide vote in only three days. Yet many of the voices which led the revolution are calling for a ‘no’ vote to be cast. Why would this be?
Many of the amendments reflect exactly the demands made during the protests. Term limits are proposed, allowing an elected president two terms of four years each. Furthermore, there are stipulations putting supervision of elections under the purview of the judiciary – a generally well respected institution whose rulings were routinely ignored by the executive branch. Additionally, the restrictive rules determining eligibility for a candidate for president have been loosened considerably, allowing for greater opposition and independent opportunities. These and other proposals will go a long way to curbing the power of the president, which is in line completely with the demands of the people.
Yet a ‘no’ vote has been urged by many of those who struggled for these changes. Incidentally, the referendum does not allow consideration of individual amendments; the proposal must be accepted or rejected wholesale. Among those rejecting are the traditional opposition parties – Wafd, Tagammu, and Nasserist – who have often been understood to provide window dressing support for the democratic posture of the Mubarak regime. Yet the more dynamic and loosely related youth coalitions which led the revolution have also come down against the changes. So have independent candidates for president, such as Mohamed el-Baradei and Amr Moussa.
Noteworthy in the discussion are those groups which have publically called for a ‘yes’ vote. These are led by the remnants of the discredited National Democratic Party, which governed Egypt during the entire tenure of Mubarak, and the Muslim Brotherhood, their officially banned yet primary opposition. Strange bedfellows are par for the course in politics – what brings these forces together?
While there is a lawsuit pending to dissolve the NDP altogether, there is no necessary reason why it could not reform itself and participate actively in the new Egypt. The NDP was less an ideological grouping than an association of opportunism – it was the best and easiest way to advance in politics. As such, it attracted many who craved privilege and access to facilitated business opportunity. Yet this fancy phrase for corruption should not be leveled at all its members, many of which are understood to have sought the reform of the party from within. Can new leadership purge its dead weight? Or is the ‘dead weight’ still in charge, waiting out the reforms until its network of connections and nationwide organizational structure is free to rule the day through democratic means? After all, politics and money go hand in hand; even a reformed NDP would be well versed in both.
The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, faces internal challenges. It has formed an official political party – named Freedom and Justice – but suffers a fissure between its old guard and youth. The former was cautious during the revolution and negotiated with Vice-President Suleiman when he called for ‘dialogue’ with the forces on the street. The youth rejected this along with their Tahrir Square compatriots. Meanwhile, a breakaway moderate Islamist party from the 90s – Wasat – has also been granted political license, and it is possible other trends will separate from the Muslim Brotherhood proper. Even so, the Brotherhood maintains the best organized political structure of all opposition parties, and stands to make gains in the coming democracy.
These gains seem to factor in to the movement for a ‘no’ vote. It is not purely pragmatic, however, as technical reasons are issued about why certain amendments are flawed. The major argument for ‘no’ however is not with the amendments themselves, but with the resulting Constitution.
Following the resignation of Mubarak the military council suspended the Constitution and dissolved Parliament. If a ‘yes’ vote succeeds, this will result in the reactivation of the Constitution, which was rejected by all as a flawed document designed to cement the powers of the executive branch, and president in particular. While the amendments go far, many state they do not go far enough. The revolution discredited the entire ruling system, including the Constitution; these voices believe an entirely new charter should be drafted through national consensus. These amendments, they say, were crafted behind closed doors by members appointed by the military. Though better representing society than anything in the previous regime, they do not reflect the creative, free voice of the people.
The second step following a ‘yes’ vote would be the holding of parliamentary elections. Though an exact timetable has not been promised – and even if delineated might yet be changed – these elections could be as early as June. Some voices call for presidential elections to be held first, but this does not appear to be the desire of the military council. It can be rightfully argued that a president without a legislature could become a new dictator, and at the least would have a powerful hand to guide the supposedly democratic transition.
Yet the ‘no’ party contests this timeline, stating that early legislative elections would lead to great gains by the NDP and Muslim Brotherhood, as the free and nascent political movements will not have had time to canvas nationwide. Many of these favor the formation of a temporary presidential council, composed of both civilian and military figures, to guide the nation until civil society can accommodate all candidate parties. Added to their concern is the understanding, if not promise, that the new government will indeed craft a new Constitution. While this is desired, if a legislature dominated by former regime members and the Brotherhood has a leading role, liberal forces fear what may develop.
In any scenario, neither the Constitutional amendments nor the military are clear about the next steps. All that is known is that the referendum will be held on March 19. Many oppositional parties desire greater clarity, but they do celebrate the opportunity at hand. Rather than calling for a boycott, they urge wide participation – for a vote of ‘no’. Operating under a newfound freedom, they hope that practices such as these will lead to a deepening of the democratic impulse. Even so, their fears are more than whispers, but the decision, at long last, rests in the hands of the Egyptian people.