Egypt proposed constitution expands rights but shifts power to president

While constitution is progressive, proposed protections for women, children and minorities unlikely to be enforced

Supporters of ousted leader Mohamed Morsi clash with security forces in Nahda Square in Giza, Jan. 12, 2014.
Mohammed Abu Zaid/AP

Egypt’s latest proposed constitution is less conservative, less Islamist and more progressive than the version drafted and approved under the deposed administration of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, but its most persuasive quality might be that campaigning against it is illegal.

At least that’s the impression given by state and private propaganda pushing a yes vote, the military-backed government’s refusal to allow opposition groups to monitor the process and the recent arrest of political activists who advocated voting no.

The last time Egypt voted on a constitution, in December 2012, it set off weeks of anti-Brotherhood protests that fatally damaged Morsi’s administration. This time, army Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who replaced Morsi, has put the weight of the military and his own potential presidential ambitions behind the referendum, but conditions are even worse.

Since Morsi’s ouster in July, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest political force, has been nearly banished from public life, and the crackdown on dissent has extended even to the revolution’s most prominent secular activists.

For the country’s interim leaders, who owe their authority to the military, the constitution represents a chance to argue that the past five months have been worth the bloodshed.

The Brotherhood’s top leaders, along with Morsi and his aides, have been imprisoned and charged with serious crimes, and more than 1,000 of Morsi’s supporters were killed when security forces stormed sit-ins in mid-August — the worst mass killing in Egypt’s modern history. Thousands more have been arrested.

Liberal parties have applauded the government’s campaign against what they call terrorism and advocated approval of the new constitution as a way to regain stability.

“We believe that this constitutional referendum is the first step toward reinstating a democratic institutional framework in Egypt, which would lead to stability and prosperity,” the Free Egyptians Party, one of the country’s most influential liberal groups, said in a press release on Monday.

But since the coup, attacks on soldiers and police officers have increased, and the government has said that at least 350 troops have died. The violence culminated in the Dec. 24 bombing of Interior Ministry offices in the Nile Delta that killed 16 people; the group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for the attack, but the government blamed it on the Brotherhood and labeled the organization a terrorist group.

With membership in the Brotherhood effectively outlawed, the crackdown on dissent has extended to secular revolutionary icons such as Ahmed Maher, a co-founder of the April 6 movement, and Alaa Abdel Fattah, a computer programmer and longtime reform advocate. Maher has received a three-year prison sentence for organizing a protest, and Abdel Fattah faces trial on a similar charge.

The Brotherhood’s opposition front, the Anti-Coup Alliance, has declared that it will boycott the referendum, as have the April 6 movement and the Strong Egypt Party, which is led by moderate Islamist and former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.

With the constitution’s victory almost assured, observers on both sides have shifted their attention to turnout. The government would like to see it top the roughly 16.8 million voters — or 33 percent of the electorate — who participated in Morsi’s referendum.

On Monday the Anti-Coup Alliance noted that only 15 percent of eligible Egyptian expatriates, who were allowed to vote early, had cast ballots, describing the figure as an “early defeat” for the “illegitimate black charter.”

But after the hyperpartisanship of the vote passes, Egyptians will have to live with their third constitution in nearly as many years.

“Between the state’s euphoria and the Muslim Brotherhood’s drama, there are those who believe in the absurdity of all this,” lamented Ziad al Akl, a senior researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, in a column. “There are those who are very perplexed by the idea of putting people in prison for protesting and at the same time asking people to participate in a democratic referendum.”

The new document differs significantly from the constitution approved under Morsi, which passed with 64 percent approval after he issued a decree making it unchallengeable by the courts, provoking fury from liberals, the Christian minority and human-rights advocates.

While the new charter contains articles expanding personal freedoms and rights for Egypt’s poor and disenfranchised as well as its Christians, it also cements the power of the country’s most powerful institutions and shifts political power back from parliament to the president.

As long as those institutions remain fundamentally unchanged, the new rights will likely remain unenforced.

“Those seeking stronger rights for vulnerable groups will find significant comfort in this text,” wrote Zaid al-Ali, a senior adviser at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. “However, anyone hoping for specific mechanisms for those rights to be enforced will be sorely disappointed.”

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Egypt in Turmoil
Mohamed Morsi

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