Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Egypt: Constitutional Changes, Referendum, Hit “Healthy” Roadblocks

By William Fisher

New amendments to Egypt’s Constitution – and the proposed March 19 referendum in which citizens will approve or reject them – have run into serious objections from a variety of pro-democracy advocates.

Major organizations such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) have criticized the specifics of each proposed Constitutional amendment prepared under the Army’s instructions, saying they are “deeply flawed and have frustrated Egyptians’ hope that they would usher in a democratic transition or address the problematic electoral system before parliamentary and presidential elections.”

But much of the criticism has been leveled at the proposed March 19 referendum. Critics charge it is being held too soon. They worry that the current time frame for elections will favor the most organized parties in Egypt, which happen to be the Muslim Brotherhood and former President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.

The judicial committee supervising the referendum has not yet announced the general guidelines for the referendum. But it has announced that the only requirements for voting in the referendum will be a national ID card and being eighteen years old, and that anyone can vote at any voting location, further increasing access and ease of participation.

Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, has suggested that a presidential council be created if the armed forces insist on handing over power within six months. He warned that holding parliamentary elections before the presidential elections, with restrictions on forming political parties still in place, will produce a parliament that does not represent the people.

He said a temporary constitution, the setting up of a committee to put together a new constitution, and holding the presidential elections before parliamentary elections are factors that will help ensure a transition to a democracy based on participation and equal opportunity.

He has has rejected the proposed constitutional amendments, calling instead for a full rewriting of the constitution before elections are held.

Another point of view comes from Egyptian Mohamed Z. Gomaa, a respected international consultant based in Cairo. He told The Public Record that there is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion surrounding the Constitution/Referendum issues.

“For the time being, people are looking for a whole new constitution that expresses their aspirations, while the Army only asked for changes of some articles. This is a main and significant difference. People are afraid that restricting the Constitution to few changes may make old Constitution continue, at the end of the day.”

He added, “The responsible committee, with its very respectable head, did a good job. It did changes that will make the Constitution is just temporary. The changes added an article states that the elected parliament must elect/define a large committee to write a whole new Constitution within a specific period. Other changed articles are only making it possible to carry on an unbiased election process.”

Neil Hicks, a senior legal advisor to the US-based Human Rights First, told The Public Record he shares the concerns of many others regarding “the brevity of the transitional period and the likelihood that it could lead to the election of a new parliament dominated by existing structures, primarily the NDP and, to some extent, the Muslim Brotherhood, and that this body would then have enormous weight that it could use to block real reform.”

But, he argues, “There are several ways to extend the transitional period that has been suggested, including the formation of a transitional governing council with civilian participation to dilute military control, or the election of an interim, transitional president to put a democratic stamp on the processes of completely redrafting the Constitution and preparing for parliamentary elections.”

He says he would urge the military to “take seriously the concerns raised by CIHRS and many others about the dangers of a rush to parliamentary elections in a few months and will adopt appropriate steps to lengthen the transition period while also showing willingness to share power and to move unambiguously in the direction of civilian control over the military.”

He adds, “I fully agree with CIHRS that the 1971 Constitution has ‘outlived its usefulness,’ and a commitment to convene a representative, pluralistic constituent assembly to write a new Constitution is therefore a vital demand. Such a rewrite would ensure that any shortfalls in the proposed amendments would be short lived.”

He says “It is very healthy that this kind of very practical, open debate about ways to advance respect for the rule of law and safeguards for human rights is taking place in a context where real progress is a tangible possibility.”

The Constitutional process has been marked by a degree of consultation and participation that is new to post-Mubarak Egypt. For example, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reports that the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces met with 25 leaders of political parties, in addition to Muslim Brotherhood General Guide Mohamed Badie, to discuss the constitutional amendments and mechanisms for impending elections.

The organization’s Arab Reform Bulletin reported that several party leaders requested the council extend the transitional period, as some worried that the elections would be held before less established parties could create a legitimate support structure, limiting those who were able to participate and nominate candidates.

Party leaders stated that elections can not be held before amending the elections law, abolishing the committee for political party affairs, and transforming the state-run media. They said that more time was needed to prepare their respective parties for the polls.