News / Middle East

    Egyptians Brace for First Test on Democracy

    As voters prepare for a constitutional referendum, observers debate proposed amendments, timing of poll.

    Egyptians drive past a banner calling for a "yes" vote in a referendum on constitutional changes scheduled for Saturday, Cairo, March 17, 2011
    Egyptians drive past a banner calling for a "yes" vote in a referendum on constitutional changes scheduled for Saturday, Cairo, March 17, 2011
    Cecily Hilleary

    It was only five weeks ago that Hosni Mubarak stood down from nearly 30 years of autocratic rule. In this continual breakneck pace of change, Egyptians go to the polls Saturday in the first major test on their road to democracy. They will decide on a series of eight amendments to the recently-suspended constitution.

    Most of the changes focus on the most contentious aspects of the country’s electoral process: They define presidential term limits and powers; provide for the judiciary to monitor and supervise elections; they stipulate who can - and cannot run. They do away with voter registration and allow anyone with a national identity card to vote. In addition, they call for a new constitution to be written sometime down the road.

    Early Doubts

    Egyptians are debating whether this weekend’s referendum comes a little too soon. At the same time, they recognize what a milestone it is in their recent history - because for the first time in decades, they have the opportunity to vote freely on a matter.

    When Egypt’s Military Council took power last month, it dissolved both houses of parliament, suspended the constitution and scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections for June and August, respectively. The Council then appointed a committee of eight legal experts to amend the current constitution. Heading the group was Tariq El Bishri, 78, a respected judge and advocate for judicial independence. Conspicuously absent from the group were any of the pro-democracy advocates of the January 25 or any other opposition movement.

    Reservations about the process

    Wael Abbas
    Wael Abbas

    Wael Abbas is among Egypt’s best known cyber journalists and activists, and one of the winners of the 2007 Knight International Journalism award for his work tracking police abuse. Like most pro-democracy advocates, he says the military’s timetable is so rushed that it doesn’t give new parties time to organize - and therefore practically hands over a new government to either the Muslim Brotherhood or remnants of the old regime.

    He says Egypt should have thrown the old constitution away and written a new one. He’s calling for Egyptians to vote “no.”

    Among the most critical changes called for in the proposed amendments:

    • Nearly anyone could run for president, as long as that person were the child of Egyptian parents, had never married a foreigner or held outside citizenship.
    • Future presidential candidates would require a relatively small base of support - from either 30 members of parliament or 30,000 voters spread out across half of the country’s 29 governates. Alternately, a candidate could be nominated by any registered political party having at least one member in parliament.
    • Elections would be supervised and monitored by the judiciary, to ensure they are free and fair.
    • Presidential terms would be limited to four years apiece and restrict the number of terms a president could serve to two. Egypt’s future president would be required to appoint a vice president within 60 days of taking office.
    • The President could not declare a state of emergency without parliament’s approval; emergency laws could remain in place no more than six months, unless Egyptians were to approve extending them through public voting.

    “I don’t like the amendments,” said Abbas. “I didn’t like the committee when they started it.  It was started during the regime of Mubarak. Mubarak was behind the choice of the people on the committee - and the Army also."

    "The changes that they made to the constitution are not satisfactory at all. They don’t promise a new constitution, once there’s a president and a parliament. And also, they did not take any powers from the president and didn’t give any power to the parliament."

    A great many Egyptians say they would have preferred an entirely new constitution, however, they concede that the amendments at least satisfy the basic demands of the people.

    'Yes' to amendments

    Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, was jailed, tortured and exiled under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. All in all, he says he is satisfied with the proposed changes.

    Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim
    Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim

    “The most important one,” he said, “is the limitation on presidential terms.  That’s very important to avoid the kind of scenario we had in Egypt in the past and the kind of scenario other countries in the Middle East have, where a president comes to power and stays on and on and even tries to pass it on to his children. My thought is, under the circumstances, I would say ‘yes’ to all the amendments.”

    Ibrahim admits that one of the proposed amendments regarding citizenship would hurt him personally, if he ever decided to run for president. He holds an American passport and is married to an American.   

    No Plan "B"

    Ellis Jay Goldberg
    Ellis Jay Goldberg

    Ellis Jay Goldberg, Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington in Seattle, is currently Visiting Professor of Political Science and Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo. He believes the Egyptian military has not been at all clear about what happens next if the amendments pass, fail or if voters boycott the referendum Saturday.  

    “The presumption is that if people vote ‘yes’ and accept the amendments,” Goldberg said, “the army will reinstate the constitution and it will schedule elections. It’s not clear at this point if it will schedule elections for a parliament first or for the presidency first. At some point, the parliament will be called into session and it will choose a constituent assembly which will then write a new constitution.”

    Goldberg said it is equally unclear what will happen if the amendments fail. “What people have been threatened with, essentially, is that if they vote no, then the army will simply remain in control, continue to rule and Egypt will be ruled by a military government for some unspecified period of time. That’s clearly unacceptable.”

    'Like a true democracy'

    Preliminary polls indicate public opinion on the constitutional amendments is almost evenly divided. Saad Eddin Ibrahim considers this to be very good news as past referenda in Egypt nearly always had close to 100 percent approval. Today, says he, the result is impossible to predict.

    “Something like 52 to 48, which is unusual,” Ibrahim said. “This is like a true democracy, where people do disagree and the disagreement is close to the middle!”

    With the vote only days away, many details remain up in the air. The military has not yet released the specific locations of polling stations on its official website. It does say there will be 54,000 polling stations to serve 45 million eligible voters. If voter turnout is high, keeping elections smooth and orderly could end up a logistical nightmare for police. Finally, it is not clear who will be monitoring the election or counting the votes, once they are in - this, in a country with a reputedly long history of voter fraud and rigged elections.

    Whether Egyptians can successfully navigate this first major democratic test is anyone’s guess. But if Egyptians have done anything in the past few weeks, they have proven that they know how to make what was once unimaginable possible.

     

    Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
    and discuss them on our Facebook page.

    You May Like

    Russian-Backed Offensive in Syria Pushes War to Tipping Point

    As threat to Aleppo and rebel forces grows, US plan to negotiate becomes less and less appealing for Syrian government, says one military analyst

    IS Runs Timber Smuggling Business in Afghanistan, Officials Say

    Government turning blind eye to smuggling, according to tribal leaders; Afghanistan's forest cover dropped by 50 percent in three decades, experts say

    Video White House Seeks $1.8 Billion to Combat Zika

    Obama administration says funding would 'support essential strategies to combat the virus' such as rapidly expanding mosquito control programs, accelerating vaccine research

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenyai
    X
    February 08, 2016 4:30 PM
    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video Sanders, Clinton Battle for Young Democratic Vote

    Despite a narrow loss to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in last week's Iowa Democratic caucuses, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders secured more than 80 percent of the vote among those between the ages of 18 and 29. VOA correspondent Aru Pande talks to Democrats in New Hampshire about who they are leaning towards and why in this week's primary.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.