Few expect vote on constitution to calm Egypt’s turmoil

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 11, 2012 


Supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi rally in support for the new constitution in Cairo


— Whether Egypt’s constitutional referendum happens this weekend as scheduled or not, two weeks of political turmoil and divisiveness, and an opposition that’s vowed to continue its protests, have all but extinguished hope that passing a permanent document will bring Egyptians what they say they want most: stability.

The vote, scheduled to begin Saturday, already is showing signs of being messy. Egypt spent weeks preparing for the presidential election earlier this year, but the call for the constitutional referendum was issued just a week ago, leaving little time for independent monitors to prepare and for nationwide guidelines to be put in place. Moreover, a group of judges who were expected to oversee the voting process declared Tuesday that they’d boycott it. That required the government to extend the voting into Sunday, in order to have enough observers.

Opponents of the new constitution remain disorganized and divided. Some still hoped to delay the vote, saying the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated constitutional assembly that drafted the hastily produced document doesn’t represent the electorate. They want more time to amend the proposed constitution, which was drawn up after many liberals and secularists walked out of the assembly. Others are urging their followers to vote no.

Adel Farghaly, a 67-year-old construction worker, was among the thousands who were standing in front of the presidential palace Tuesday to show their opposition to Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the proposed constitution.

“There won’t be stability even if the constitution passes. Look around you: Those people won’t surrender,” Farghaly said, indicating the protesters.

The best that can be hoped for is that the referendum will simply be chaotic. At worst, it will be a violent, rigged process deemed illegitimate by whoever loses. And that, experts said, doesn’t portend well for long-term stability.

“How do you create policy in a mess?” said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington. “No matter what happens with the referendum, it is likely to yield prolonged uncertainty.”

The army, Egypt’s traditional arbiter of power, largely has remained outside the dispute over the constitution and Morsi’s assumption of broad powers late last month. But on Tuesday it appeared to engage overtly for the first time, inviting Morsi supporters and opponents to a national dialogue Wednesday. It was unclear whether the meeting would happen, however, and if so, who would attend.

On Tuesday, the streets of the capital once again were empty of their usual bustling traffic, replaced by pro- and anti-Morsi protesters. Hours before the protests started, Prime Minister Hesham Kandil said Egypt had asked to delay a much-needed $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan by a month, citing the political instability.

Supporters of the new constitution are confident that it will pass. Behind the scenes, many opponents grudgingly agree.

Past elections have shown that the Egyptian electorate favors Islamists by a large margin. In last year’s parliamentary elections, for example, Islamists won 70 percent of the vote. The referendum, which has polarized the nation, needs only a simple majority to pass.

But even those who are behind it don’t consider the constitution a durable document. Even as she stood Tuesday among thousands who were rallying in support of Morsi and the constitution, Omimia Maher, 39, said one reason she was voting yes was she hoped that a new parliament was likely to change the new constitution in a way that made it more Islamic.

“I will vote yes although I disagree with some of the articles, but if I say no there won’t be stability at all,” Maher said.

Those opponents who express confidence that they can defeat the constitution at the ballot box point to the first round of this summer’s presidential elections, in which Morsi won only 25 percent of the vote while secular candidates collectively garnered 45 percent.

Morsi promised that if the constitution were voted down he’d call for an election for a new assembly. But there’s no guarantee that a new body would be any more diverse than the old one or that the new constitution would be markedly different. Rather, it might just delay the inevitable by months.

Opponents even concede that there’s no consensus about what changes they’d like to see or how they’d proceed if they defeated the referendum.

Even if Morsi delayed the vote, “it is not clear what alternative would emerge,” Trager said.

Regardless of what happens in the referendum, both sides already are planning for the parliamentary elections that, according to the constitution, must happen within 60 days of its passage. Under the proposed constitution, the parliament would have significant say over the interpretation of the document.

Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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