First post-Mubarak vote shows Egypt's divisions

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 18, 2011 

CAIRO — Millions of Egyptians are expected to vote Saturday in a nationwide referendum on constitutional amendments, a poll that's likely to lay bare the competing visions for democracy put forth since Hosni Mubarak's ouster last month.

The youth blocs that emerged from Egypt's revolution oppose the amendments, saying the old constitution is too flawed for quick fixes.

The biggest workers' groups also are opposed. Presidential contenders including Arab League chief Amr Moussa and Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei likewise urge "no" votes, preferring to start from scratch.

The "yes" camp, meanwhile, comprises some unlikely bedfellows. First, there's the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist party and the most organized of Egypt's opposition factions. Then come the remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, which stands a better chance of regrouping under an amended constitution. A few prominent leftists also are in favor of the changes, saying they'd hasten the handover of power from Egypt's military rulers to a civilian authority.

This is the topsy-turvy world of post-Mubarak politics, where alliances are fleeting, and voters are reeling from the unprecedented choices before them. This weekend's vote, analysts say, will be an early gauge of the strength of the disparate blocs in Egyptian society.

Some 40 million people — roughly half the population — are eligible to vote, and turnout will be another barometer of Egyptians' enthusiasm for the new political projects. Under U.S.-allied Mubarak, few people eligible to vote bothered to do so after years of rigged results.

The current constitution was suspended last month, leaving the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in charge of the country and its caretaker government. But the military's once-sterling reputation as a trusted, stable institution has been tarnished since Mubarak's toppling, beset by allegations of torture and unlawful detention related to the clearing of protesters from a landmark square in downtown Cairo.

By most accounts, the military is pushing hard for the amendments to pass in hopes it will be able quickly to turn Egypt's messy political affairs over to civilian rulers and get back to protecting the country during a dangerous security vacuum. The military wants Saturday's vote to be followed in short order by parliamentary elections and then a presidential one.

Despite their misgivings about the wisdom of amending a flawed constitution, some activists worry that voting down the proposed changes would only prolong military rule and cement the generals' power in the drawn-out process of drafting a new constitution.

The back-and-forth on the referendum is the leading topic on Egyptian daytime radio programs and evening talk shows. The debate is fierce online, too, as both camps post slickly produced YouTube videos and trade jabs via social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

The military issued a sternly worded request to journalists to cease publishing "any opinions, analyses or proposals conveying points of view about the referendum" from Friday until polls close Saturday. All coverage should focus on urging Egyptians to head to the polls, the statement said. Media agencies ignored the order, and activists criticized the statement as an infringement on press freedom.

The amendments on the ballot would relax the rules of political candidacy and limit executive powers — changes that activists across the spectrum have demanded for years. But now that Mubarak's gone, the factions that came together to topple him have splintered over the pace and scope of political reforms.

The most notable proposed changes include: four-year presidential term limits, full judicial oversight of elections, curbing emergency laws, more room for independent candidates and the abolishment of "terrorism" laws that were used under Mubarak to bypass civilian courts and justify open-ended detentions with no judicial involvement. The reforms will appear on the ballot as a package, so the vote is for all or none.

A panel of Egyptian legal experts drafted the proposed changes in just 10 days, focusing on the removal of major hurdles to free and fair elections. Many activists complained that the hastily drafted amendments don't go far enough in stripping away the broad executive powers that allowed Mubarak to run Egypt as his own fief for three decades.

The biggest question, for both Egyptians and the nervous West, is whether the Muslim Brotherhood could steamroll other parties and lead Egypt's transitional phase. Once likely, that prospect is now in doubt as the Brotherhood faces competition from moderate and secular parties that formed after the uprising.

The Brotherhood is also suffering its own internal fragmenting as a reformist wing that was an early supporter of the revolution challenges the old-guard leadership that was reluctant to participate. There's talk of at least two rival political parties emerging from the Brotherhood, which was officially banned and relentlessly persecuted in the Mubarak era.

As an organization, however, the Brotherhood is firm in its stance that the proposed constitutional amendments are imperative to push the country along for now, even though an entirely new constitution remains the long-term goal.

Adel Abdelbari, a senior Brotherhood member, said the vote will show whether the group "is popular and effective or not." He said the Brotherhood's streamlined campaign to encourage "yes" votes gave the group an advantage over the fledgling, loosely organized blocs against the amendments.

"Other parties are just refusing, but not proposing anything practical to change the constitution," Abdelbari said. ". . . Whoever's saying 'no rush' could've worked with that approach back in the day, but we've lost so many years since the '90s. Now, there's no time to wait because we can't keep the country in such a state of depression."

(McClatchy special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed.)

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