Millions of Egyptians went to the polls on Saturday to vote in a referendum on a proposed constitution that could change the character of Egypt and gradually bring its laws into sync with Shari’a, or Islamic law.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi decided to send the draft constitution to a referendum after passing it through a 100- member drafting body dominated by Islamists and boycotted by many secularists and Christians.
In the ensuing tensions, violence pitting supporters and opponents of the new constitution erupted, leading to the deaths of 10 Egyptians and injuring about 1,000.
It’s been nearly two years since the Arab Spring-inspired protests spread to Egypt, eventually leading to the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Following elections earlier this year, which brought the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi to power, Egypt is still deep in crisis.
Although those who wanted to overthrow Mubarak were united in wanting to rid Egypt of a dictatorial regime in power for over three decades, their hopes of what would come afterward varied significantly.
Roughly speaking, the constitution represents those for whom progress equals an Egypt of a more Islamic nature, while secularists, liberals, Christians and others were hoping for true democratic reform – without religious interference. In a speech before the vote, Morsi himself made it sound as if the disagreements amounted to a culture war between authentic Islamists and faux-enlightened secularists.
Still, developments surrounding the referendum have been changing daily and have been confusing even to many Egyptians.
Below is a primer on what’s happening in Egypt – and what to watch for in the next week or more.
• What is the referendum about? Several weeks ago, Morsi gave himself sweeping powers, including immunity from judicial interference. The move allowed him to fasttrack a newly proposed constitution through a drafting body dominated by Islamists.
Secularists and liberals decided to boycott the drafting process, because they disagree both with the content of the constitution and what they say are Morsi’s less-than-democratic tactics in pushing through the legislation.
• Why are so many people opposed to this constitution? Opposition is coming from many corners, and is converging under an umbrella group called the National Salvation Front. The opposition to the proposed constitution is worried both about the encroaching influence of Islam on public life in Egypt, and is leery of what it sees as Morsi’s move to consolidate his presidential powers at the expense of democracy.
• Who’s in the opposition and what are they asking for? Amr Moussa, a leading opposition politician and the former chief of the Arab League, asked that supporters vote “no.” He wrote in his Twitter feed that supporting the proposed constitution “violates universal values and freedoms [and] is a sure way to institutionalize instability and turmoil.”
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, said that the referendum should be postponed until a more inclusive process is held.
Another leading opposition figure, Hamdeen Sabbahi, is calling on its supporters to simply boycott the vote.
• Is the opposition against a referendum under any circumstances? Several opposition figures say that they would agree to holding a referendum if some fair voting practices were upheld.
These include: judicial oversight of voting; monitoring by local and international nongovernmental organizations; a sufficient security presence for all sides (not just Islamists); international observers; the release of detailed results announced after votes are tallied; and voting on one day rather than two.
• Is the violence expected to escalate? The two sides – Islamists and secularists – have clashed regularly in demonstrations at Tahrir Square, the central meeting point of the revolution that led to the overthrow of Mubarak in February 2011.
"The escalation of violence hasn't included the police - except as silent, therefore passively complicit, observers - but it is primarily anti-Morsi protesters being attacked by his 'adoring mobs,'" analyst Mohamed El Dahshan told The Jerusalem Post.
On Saturday, soldiers joined police to secure the voting – nearly 120,000 army troops were deployed to protect polling stations. Street clashes erupted on Friday in Alexandria, Egypt’s secondlargest city, but voting proceeded quietly there, with no reports of violence elsewhere.
• What impact could the constitution have if passed? The new constitution would give a much greater role to Islamic scholars from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest and best-known institutions in the Muslim world.
Islamic experts would be asked to weigh in on national issues, checking that potential legislation doesn’t contradict Shari’a.
Experts say the changes could have an impact on how the law treats women and other issues of “personal status,” such as divorce, custody and inheritance. It might also limit writers’ and artists’ freedom of expression. Opponents are concerned that this is a first and major step toward allowing Islamic jurisprudence gradually to become the law of the land.
• So the constitution would make Shari’a law in Egypt? No, no yet. But in all disputes and in creating new legislation, Islamic scholars would be consulted. Experts in Egyptian law say the proposed constitution does not make clear who holds ultimate authority, the “secular” judiciary or the Islamists of al-Azhar.
• Weren’t there attempts at a compromise? The opposition last week agreed to take part in national reconciliation talks hosted by the army. But on Wednesday, the army delayed the talks without reason and did not set a new date.
• Why is the referendum being held over two dates, Saturday 15 as well as 22? The referendum will be held over two days because there aren’t enough judges willing to monitor all polling stations.
The two-day voting plan was adopted because many of the judges needed to oversee the vote declared that they would stay home in protest at the decision to hold the referendum.
On Saturday afternoon, the Supreme Electoral Commission ordered 18 polling stations in Alexandria to shut down due to lack of supervision by judges.
• When will results be available? Official results won’t be announced until after the second round, though it is likely that unofficial, early results will emerge and give an indication of the first-day figures.
To pass, the constitution must be approved by more than 50 percent of the votes, although many people are not expected to cast their ballot at all. About 51 million Egyptians are eligible to vote in the first round in Cairo and other major cities.
Many analysts predict that the referendum will pass.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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