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Brookings Experts Question Outcomes of Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum
December 17, 2012
By: Rebecca Aaberg | Printer Friendly

On December 17, the Brookings Institution hosted a discussion on the results of the referendum on Egypt’s draft constitution. The referendum, which will determine whether Egypt adopts the draft constitution, will take place over two days of voting, December 15 and December 22. Although only one of the voting days has taken place, the panelists discussed the possible outcomes for and reactions from political parties and Egyptian society. Khaled Elgindy, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, and Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, explored the legitimacy of the process and substance of the draft constitution and the potential for a functioning democracy in the country. The panel was moderated by Director of the Saban Center Tamara Cofman Wittes.
Cofman Wittes reviewed the results from voting on December 15. Participation was low, with only 30-35 percent of eligible voters going to the polls. Of those who voted, approximately 56 percent supported the referendum. Districts in Alexandria and Cairo—urban areas with a higher probability of “no” votes—voted on December 15. The majority of those districts to vote on December 22 are rural areas where opposition to the draft constitution is less organized.

Elgindy and Hamid agreed that it is likely the draft constitution will pass. Even with only a small margin, the Muslim Brotherhood would consider the passage a victory, as a “truly majoritarian party,” Elgindy said, their actions “do not reflect the nuance of concensus-building.” His assessed the likelihood of continued collaboration between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Cofman Wittes identified the referendum as reflecting the support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood rather than for the constitution itself. According to Elgindy, citizens were unlikely to read the lengthy draft. Hamid added that the opposition must realize that mass protests are not a long-term strategy; they will either need to work within the established system or withdraw from the system entirely.

One of the most contentious issues in the draft constitution is the role of religion in the Egyptian government. Elgindy identified Article 2, Article 4, and Article 219 as the most controversial. Article 2 supports the principles of Sharia (Islamic law) as a source for standards of law (but not legislation). Article 4 gives the Al-Azhar, an unelected body for Islamic scholarship, power to review (but not approve) legislation. Article 219 defines the principles of Sharia and, according to Elgindy, opens the door to creating a religious state in the future. Hamid noted that Article 219 is vague, and Elgindy called Article 4 “problematic” in allowing an unelected body to review material, asking: “What constitutes religious content? Is it TV ads? Speech? Salafis would say it is everything.” Cofman Wittes noted that the head of Al-Azhar had been appointed by the president under the Hosni Mubarak regime, and Hamid added that while the Muslim Brotherhood had initially said it would prefer Al-Azhar had direct elections, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has changed positions on a number of similar issues, so it is unclear where it stands now.

Hamid focused on the upcoming parliamentary elections, which will take place in the coming months, should be constitution pass as expected. When asked if liberals and non-Islamists would be “brought back into the democratic process,” Hamid acknowledged that segments of the fragmented opposition had wanted to boycott the referendum in order to undermine its legitimacy. He suggested that the 44 percent “no” vote proved that the mass protests organized by the opposition last week influenced the outcome of the first round of voting. He cautioned, however, that it is easier to mobilize people against a common enemy (in this case, the Muslim Brotherhood) than to form coalitions to win parliamentary seats.

Just as the left and liberal parties have broken into fractions, Islamists groups are not necessarily united. Elgindy said that the constitutional process had been dictated by concerns about Salafist (ultraconservative Islamist) support and resulted in a shift to the right by the FJP. Hamid mentioned that liberals and Salafists had been in talks early in the drafting process in order to oppose the FJP. Salafists tend to dislike Brotherhood “paternalism,” and he described the tendency of the “Muslim Brotherhood [to look] at Salafis like little brothers who cause trouble.” Elgindy gave the example of Article 219 as a “nod” to the Salafits’ demands.

The draft constitution also allows the military to maintain its autonomous status without civilian oversight. Additionally, the draft includes new language meant to limit discrimination and protect minorities but also leaves space for the government to place limits on citizenship. According to Elgindy, this means that rights are articulated but not guaranteed.

The panel also touched on the role of the United States in Egypt’s transition, particularly regarding the draft constitution. Elgindy said that the US has been largely disinterested and stayed away from the process of writing the constitution, especially in religious matters. He suggested that it was not possible for the US to play a more significant role and that it was a “lose-lose proposition.” Hamid, to the contrary, claimed that had the US been proactive during the emergency decree by the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the group in charge of Egypt before Morsi’s election, and during the NGO crisis earlier this year, it could have more effectively supported democracy in Egypt. Cofman Wittes noted that the US’s primary interest is the stability of the country. Elgindy characterized the transition as “essentially a game with no rules,” which has created increasing instability in the country. Cofman Wittes added that political compromise will be necessary for Egyptian stability and that the US had highlighted the democratic process and rights, especially of women and minorities, as crucial to democratic development after the Arab Awakening.

Opposition activists in Egypt have again called for protests in the wake of the first round of voting, BBC reported. They claim that the voting has not been conducted fairly so far, saying that “the violations included polling centres collecting votes without judges to oversee the process, civil employees illegally replacing the judges, ballot papers not being officially stamped, campaigning inside polling stations and Christian voters being turned away.” Opposition groups had initially called for a postponement of the referendum since the draft had been approved by a constituent assembly that was boycotted by liberal and leftist groups.

For more information about the event, please click here.

For previous news on Egypt, please see:             
Morsi Moves Forward with Egyptian Referendum Despite Protests

BBC - Egypt Opposition Calls for Protests against Referendum



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