Debate rages as Egypt prepares for constitution vote

Analysis: Reformers denounce proposed amendments on presidential term limits, supervision over elections, as too little, too early.

By OREN KESSLER
March 16, 2011 10:22
3 minute read.
Pro-democracy protesters gather in Tahrir Square

Pro-democracy protesters gather in Tahrir Square 311 Reut. (photo credit: Peter Andrews / Reuters)

Egyptians go to the polls Saturday to vote on passing amendments to the constitution that kept Hosni Mubarak in power for 30 years. In an incongruous turn, however, the same reformers who pushed hardest for Mubarak’s ouster are now leading campaigns against the referendum’s passing.

A “yes” result in the plebiscite would mean limiting presidential terms to four years, eight if a president is reelected. Independents and opposition factions would be allowed to run for president, ending limitations that effectively kept Mubarak’s party the only choice on the ballot.

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A yes vote would also implement judicial supervision over elections, a key element in preventing fraud, and limit the emergency powers that for decades gave security forces virtually unrestrained power. It would also likely mean parliamentary and presidential elections would be held before the end of the year.

Critics say the ruling military is rushing the vote, and that the proposed changes are not nearly enough. Opponents of the amendments – including opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei and leading reform parties – want the constitution scrapped entirely to prevent Egypt from ever reverting to autocratic rule.

If voters reject the changes, the army may have to extend the six-month deadline it had set for handing power to an elected government. Some critics believe six months is too short a time to implement real governmental change and weed out remnants of Mubarak’s regime. They say the rushed nature of parliamentary ballots would allow those factions currently best organized – the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s National Democratic Party – to sweep elections.

Last week the Brotherhood threw its support behind the referendum measures. “Constitutional amendments are the most suitable, not the most ideal solution for this transitional period that cannot drag for too long,” the movement’s deputy, Khairat Shater, told Reuters. “A new constitution is most ideal but that will take up to a year,” he said.

For his part, ElBaradei urged caution. "We are at a decisive period in Egypt's history," he told an Egyptian television station last week. "We shouldn't rush. Everything should be on a solid basis ... I can't rule Egypt for one day under this constitution." ElBaradei – a Nobel laureate and former head of the UN nuclear watchdog - officially confirmed last week that he would be running for president.

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The state-run Al-Ahram newspaper reported Tuesday that both the leftist Tagammu party and the April 6 Youth Movement – one of the most visible elements in the anti-government uprising – had told their supporters to vote against the referendum measures. A private daily, Al-Masry Al-Youm, reported that several reform parties were planning protests Friday to voice their opposition, including the liberal Ghad party and ElBaradei’s National Association for Change.

Modifications to the constitution "are a step in the right direction, but they are not the end of the road," Waleed el-Koumi, formerly a leading anti-Mubarak activist, told AP. "The aim is for us to have a new constitution."

"The amendments were rushed," said political analyst Amr Hamzawy. "Being asked to vote on the entire package of amendments rather than each one does not reflect the popular will.”

Writing in the privately-owned newspaper Al-Shorouk on Tuesday, Hamzawy dismissed attempts by some media outlets to convince Egyptians that voting no would exacerbate instability in the country, which he described as “undemocratic” and aimed at scaring citizens into voting for the amendments.

“Egypt will not sink into chaos if we vote against the amendments,” he wrote. “Then, we would be looking for another constitutional formula that can ensure a democratic transition.”

Al-Shorouk managing editor Wael Qandil wrote in the same edition, “Accepting an old constitution patched with these amendments violates the ideals of the revolution.”


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