Egypt Votes On A New Constitution… Again

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Juan Cole takes a look at the contents of the charter that Egyptians have been voting on yesterday and today:

The constitution itself forbids torture and allows citizens to sue the police. If the provision is actually implementing, it seems to me Egyptians would have more rights in these regards than Americans. It gets rid of the clause that makes the al-Azhar Seminary the arbiter of Islamic law incorporated into state practices, which had been a step toward an Iran-style theocracy. It guarantees freedom of belief (the Coptic church is backing it). It is good on the rights of children. While it gives the army 8 years in which the civilian government can’t interfere much with it, that provision was in the Morsi constitution, too.

But constitutions are only as good as their implementation. Some Egyptians have argued that the interim government has overstepped its authority with its anti-protest law and ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, and that the anti-protest law, at least, is unconstitutional by the text of the new constitution. About that, we’ll see.

Manal Omar gauges the mood of voters in Cairo:

The two-day referendum, which began Tuesday, Jan. 14, is widely seen as an opportunity to end — or at least mitigate — the political debates that have been threatening to rip Egypt apart. The country has been deeply polarized since July 3, 2013, when the military deposed President Mohamed Morsi. The previous constitution was suspended, and a new road map for a political transition, led by a military-appointed government, was established. This government, which has banned the previously ruling Muslim Brotherhood and cracked down on street protesters, wrote the newly proposed constitution. The document incorporates more rights and freedoms than the last constitution, but it also guarantees greater autonomy for the military, still affirms principles of Islamic law as the main sources of legislation, limits the establishment of trade unions to one per profession, and leaves room for civilians to be tried in military courts — all causes of popular discontent.

Yet in voting, many people I spoke to said their primary interest is not in enacting a particular government charter; rather, it is in finding a way to move the country forward and to bring attention back to the much-needed social and economic reforms that inspired the 2011 revolution. Which is to say, they just want to get past it. Everyone also seemed to silently acknowledge the elephant sitting in the polling rooms: A no vote is not even an option.

Maher Hamoud doesn’t see any good coming of the referendum:

That this constitution will pass is a foregone conclusion. It is a fact that will not necessarily bring the much-mentioned stability, but it will provide the military, Mubarak loyalists and the business elite with what they wanted: power, protection and a “democratic” mask to show to international players. We have to remember that no ruler in Egypt since the mid-1970s has been able to afford being an enemy of the US or the west in general (and vice-versa).

But stability? The Muslim Brotherhood is not a small faction, and radical Islamist groups will not let bringing down the only Islamist model, which they did not necessarily like, go unpunished. The political roadmap will continue, the military will retain power (constitutionally this time) either directly or behind a civilian façade. But before we know it stability will be advocated again in another campaign, once people have realised for the third time that the revolution’s goal of freedom and social justice is not yet on anyone’s political agenda.

Steven A. Cook, meanwhile, begs Sisi not to run for president:

[L]arge numbers of Egyptians—with the encouragement of elites associated with the old order and important parts of the media—seem inclined toward an al-Sisi presidency. People are convincing themselves that Egypt needs a strong personality, if only temporarily, to put the country back on track.  They are comforted by the fact that the new constitution, which is up for referendum today and Wednesday, sets term-limits for the president to two, four-year terms.  This is an improvement in a country that has had problems with the overwhelming power of the executive, but observers should know that  1) presidential political systems are prone to the accumulation of power in the office of the presidency, and 2) there are reasons to doubt the durability of the term limits   After all, Anwar Sadat did away with them in 1980 when they became inconvenient.  The July 3 coup set a precedent that the political institutions of the state could be ignored, if powerful people and their allies agree that it is convenient to do so. One can easily imagine a scenario in which authorities override term limits in some way—security conditions, for example—to allow al-Sisi to remain in office. Another president for life is clearly not what Egypt needs.

(Photo: An Egyptian man has on his chest a portrait of Egypt’s Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with a slogan in Arabic reading ‘I vote for the loin of Egypt for the presidency’ outside a polling station during the vote on a new constitution on January 14, 2014 in Cairo. By Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)