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Egypt’s president gets his constitution

Results are now final for the referendum on the new Egyptian constitution: it was approved with 63.8% voting in favor, on a low turnout of 32.9%.

That’s a win for Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi, but it also means the end of the extraordinary powers he had given himself to rule by decree beyond judicial review. Legislative elections are now scheduled to be held in late February, and Morsi will have to share power with a parliamentary majority – but since his Muslim Brotherhood is the country’s best-organised political force it is expected to again do well in the elections.

In the previous election for the lower house of parliament, held a year ago, the Brotherhood scored about 36% of the vote; the rival Salafist Islamic party, al-Nour, had 27% and the main liberal and left-wing parties had about 23% between them. It’s likely that those proportions will be sufficiently similar that none of the three groups will win a majority on its own; they will need to compromise to get things done.

The new constitution aroused a lot of opposition due to the apparent opportunity it gives for the establishment of Islamic law at the expense of individual rights, particularly those of women and religious minorities. (The BBC has a useful analysis of its provisions here.) But it’s not surprising that the majority of voters thought its flaws were less significant than the opportunity for finally putting the Egyptian revolution on a stable and democratic basis.

Middle east expert Juan Cole says that the constitution “deliberately undermine[s] civil liberties in favor of religious regimentation” and even draws a comparison with the early years of the Islamic revolution in Iran – although he acknowledged (in an earlier post) that the Brotherhood “still seem committed to the democratic process in the sense of submitting to further elections.”

I’m not quite so pessimistic. My reading of Morsi’s approach so far is that he sees the military and the Mubarak-era establishment as his enemies much more than the liberal and democratic forces. His most undemocratic moves have looked more like mistakes due to inexperience than like serious attempts to establish a dictatorship. And the degree to which, in just six months in power, he has managed to sideline the military is truly impressive.

The Brotherhood and the Salafists both supported the new constitution, but otherwise they remain bitter rivals. If the secular parties can get themselves organised they will be well placed to arbitrate between them. Mohamed ElBaradei’s National Salvation Front has promised to run a broad unity ticket in the elections; its various components have a history of fractious behavior, but there is some hope that the referendum campaign will have galvanised them with a new sense of urgency.

The US state department is often a poor guide to middle east policy, but it seems to me that its spokesman got it just about right on Tuesday when he said “The future of Egypt’s democracy depends on forging a broader consensus behind its new democratic rules and institutions.”

Morsi echoed the same sentiment, saying yesterday that “Dialogue has become a necessity.” Time will tell just how sincere he is about that.

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    Allan Smith
    Posted December 28, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for a clear summary of the changes within the Constitution. The MSM only wants to report on the disagreement between those for and against without explaining the changes the President introduced.

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