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tank outside building photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Image: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images


Kristen McTighe, Cairo
January 13, 2014

As Egypt votes on the country's third constitution in almost four years, nearly all parties with political sway have been urging Egyptians to approve it, despite concerns over potentially harmful provisions.


In a country where the space for political dissent is shrinking, some say parties are taking the gamble that their support for the interim government will translate into an interpretation and application of the new charter that favors them.

For Nader Bakkar, the co-founder of the Salafi Al Nour party, an article in Egypt's draft constitution that prohibits political parties formed on a religious basis could threaten his ultraconservative Islamist party's very existence. But Bakkar and his party, ironically, are among the charter's most ardent proponents.

"We cannot sacrifice the vote on the basis of this constitutional amendment in light of the overall context of what Egypt is facing right now, of violence, of terrorism, of what the Muslim Brotherhood is driving the country to," Bakkar told DW. "We know it is not the end of the story and we just want to move forward on the roadmap until the whole of the Egyptian people can rejoin the political process."

Along stretches of highway in Cairo, signs are mounted on every post and in iconic Tahrir Square, the center of Egypt's revolution, a massive billboard with a large checked box hangs, all calling on Egyptians to vote yes.

"At the end of the day, our ideological demands were met, but for our political demands, we feel like we sacrificed a lot," said Bakkar, whose party held more than 20 percent of the seats in Egypt's last parliament. Once allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, the party supported the July military coup and has become the only Islamist representative in the new government.

"We cannot neglect that an article is there for banning parties based on a religious basis, and that this was created specifically for Islamic parties, even though our legal position is matched 100 percent by law with this article," said Bakkar, acutely aware that his opponents could try to interpret the clause to their detriment. Under the rule of former autocrat Hosni Mubarak, a similar ban was in place.

Nonetheless, he described the draft as "generally acceptable" and said there would be opportunity for change in the future. For Bakkar, the passage of the new charter is paramount in moving the country forward on the roadmap to democracy.

"Unfortunately, if it doesn't pass, there will be severe consequences, the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups who are against the whole process after June 30 will continue on their way of violence and of protesting, and I think the only solution here will be for the military again to take over," said Bakkar. "And this will be the hard part of the story because now we are on our way to rejoin the democratic process again that is run under civilians and the military is just a keeper behind the field," he added.

protesters on street
The country is still wracked by violent protestsImage: Reuters

Vote for freedom

At the other end of the political spectrum, liberal parties too are overwhelmingly calling for a yes vote. "We think that the constitution is opening freedoms. We think that the articles in this constitution are much better than the articles in the 2012 constitution," said Shehab Wagih, the spokesperson for Free Egyptians Party, a liberal party founded after the 2011 revolution by business tycoon Naguib Sawiris.

Supporters of the draft, like Wagih, say it improves on issues such as education, healthcare, and the rights of women and disabled, while eliminating many of the Islamist-leaning sections included in the 2012 constitution.

But Wagih's party has voiced concerns over specific provisions as well, most notably its clause that allows for military trials for civilians, a hallmark of the Mubarak era and the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces following the revolution in 2011. The trials were often used as a means to swiftly try and convict political dissidents.

Still, he is adamant in his support for the new draft. "Of course there are parts we are not in agreement with, but we had to come to a political consensus," he said. "From the far left to the far right, we all reached a consensus about this constitution, so we are calling for a yes votes."

But the draft constitution could pose other problems for liberal parties in particular, according to Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on political and economic change in Egypt, by bringing back an electoral system used under Mubarak.

"These parties, like the Free Egyptians Party, assumed that they would be the beneficiaries of the Brotherhood being eliminated from the political scene, that they would get a much larger share in the parliament in the future when the Brotherhood are not competing," Dunne told DW. "However, now there is a lot of talk that perhaps the parliamentary elections will be organized primarily in terms of individual seats."

Ägypten Verbot der Muslimbrüder
Depite a ban, the Muslim Brotherhood could benefitImage: Reuters

Return to Mubarak days?

Analysts say that when candidates are allowed to run a individuals rather than on party lists, it is a disadvantage to political parties and discourages the growth and development of mature political parties. It could also allow members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, which was banned, to run on individual seats.

When the issue arose during the drafting by the 50-member constitutional committee, it caused great controversy among members and rather than holding up the vote on the draft, the committee decided to leave it to interim president Adly Mansour to decide, rather than explicitly laying it out in the text.

"If most of the seats are for individual candidates, that will mean that money, local affiliations, family, clan, closeness of individuals to the military, the security services, these things will be the factors that determine who's in the new parliament," said Dunne.

Dunne said it was just another example of how the new draft leaves much up to the vagaries of implementing legislation like past constitutions did.

"Some of the more liberal political parties are having to tell their supporters to vote yes on the constitution, without really knowing how much of a benefit they as political parties are going to get in return for their support, without knowing clearly what the constitution will be for them because it leaves some major political decisions undecided," said Dunne.

But while liberal parties may be taking a risk, others say there is little other choice. Parties who have openly campaigned for a No vote say they have faced repression. Members of the Strong Egypt party, a political party founded by former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, announced on January 6 that they would consider a boycott of the referendum after security forces arrested a number of its members while putting up stickers and posters calling for people to vote no.


police and demonstrators clash
The country is nervous about the outcome of the referendumImage: Reuters

The Muslim Brotherhood, who have also announced they will boycott the referendum, have been the target of an ongoing violent crackdown.

"You won't be hearing much from the parties who do not support passage of the referendum because basically they are not given much access to express their opinion," said Dunne.

But if recent history is an indicator, other analysts say those supporting the constitution with the belief that it will be interpreted to their favor and that legislation to their benefit will be put in place could be disappointed.

"It is not the first time that political forces have argued against their best interests in a constitutional reform process. The Muslim Brotherhood is a very clear example," said Zaid Al-Ali, Senior Adviser on Constitution Building at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. "The 2012 constitution was the first time that very clear and explicit guarantees for the military were provided for, guarantees that were never provided for before in writing, and it was provided by the Muslim Brotherhood."

"They defended it on the basis that it was necessary politically," he added. "And look where that got them six months later."

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