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Τετάρτη, 30 Μαρτίου 2011 03:00

Egypt’s Road to Democracy: Lessons from the March Referendum

Γράφτηκε από Genevieve Theodorakis
On March 19, millions of voters rallied to polling centers to take part in Egypt’s first free and fair elections in nearly six decades. At least 25 million of Egypt’s 40 million eligible voters came out in an unprecedented turnout to cast their vote for a series of amendments to Egypt’s constitution[i], passing the referendum with the endorsement of 77 percent of voters[ii]. Specifically, the amendments limited the presidential term from six to four years, and imposed a two-term limit on each nominee. Newly elected presidents are now required to appoint a vice president within 60 days of resuming office, and presidential authority to declare a state of emergency has been circumscribed. Moreover, an article that empowered the state in the fight against terrorism was abolished due to the huge abuses of power it legitimated under the Mubarak regime. Finally, the referendum supported full judicial supervision of votes, a measure intended to ensure that free, transparent elections are held. The passing of the referendum will effectively pave the way for parliamentary elections to be held in June, followed by the presidential elections in August or September.

 

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Despite the seemingly majority support of the new constitutional amendments, the referendum exposed deep rifts in Egyptian society and shed light on a variety of serious concerns regarding Egypt’s democratic future. Among the opponents to the amendments were liberal secular leaders, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed elBaradei and Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, and the youth movement that provided much of the momentum to the revolution and the removal of President Hosni Mubarak.[iii] Activists against the referendum assert that the timetable for elections is too short, and leaves little time for nascent political movements to organize themselves and present a  active, credible force in the upcoming elections. Additionally, critics argue that the amendments themselves were written without public input, and remain deeply flawed, even an “invitation to tyranny”[iv]. Voters lacked the ability to support or disapprove of each amendment, and could only vote for or against the entire package of proposals. No alterations were made to laws that dictate the formation of political parties, inhibiting the development of new political forces to participate in elections, nor were changes made to guarantee the preservation of human rights. Moreover, few limits were proposed to curb presidential authority, while emergency law powers that enabled great abuses under Mubarak were merely restricted.[v]

Critics rightly asserted that the election timetable also provides a great advantage to Egypt’s two most organized and contentious political forces. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization officially outlawed under the Mubarak regime, maintains a significant following within Egyptian society and utilized their resources to present a formidable force in passing the recent referendum. Though the Brotherhood has publicly embraced the democratic process and rejects the use of violence, many elements of Egyptian society remain wary of their intentions. Potential Brotherhood support for the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt provokes fears among liberal secularists and Egypt’s Coptic Christian population in particular, exacerbating already tense religious divisions in the country. Early elections will most certainly benefit the organization in the form of political power in parliament, which will be responsible for the formation of a new constitution.  Nevertheless, the Brotherhood faces significant opposition from many elements of society, and without reconciling their differences, the Brothers may face a hard- won battle come election time.

The former ruling party under Mubarak also stands to gain from the speedy election timetable. The National Democratic Party (NDP) was in power for three decades and benefits from years of experience, organization, and resources, thereby presenting a formidable force to fledgling political parties in the upcoming elections. However, the removal of Mubarak and the prosecution of NDP elites for corruption charges and human rights violations has dealt a significant blow to the party’s organization and popularity, and leaves their future role in Egypt’s politics uncertain.[vi]

Several critical points can be gathered from the recent referendum. First, the military government has demonstrated its commitment to ensuring an orderly yet timely democratic transition, relieving some fears of a long-term military presence in politics. However, the army has yet to achieve the delicate balance between preserving stability and allowing breathing room for democratic forces to grow. The key to long-term peace and prosperity is the resumption of its role as protector of the state, its laws, and its citizens.[vii]

Significant efforts must also be made by the military to engage all elements of the democratic movement and encourage unity. Rumors of a tacit agreement between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood have already begun  to isolat e key segments of society, and picking sides will only aggravate religious and ideological divisions.[viii] Additionally, the proposed timetable for elections should be seriously reconsidered to ensure the participation of newly formed democratic forces, though particular care must be taken to uphold the promise of an expedient transition to civilian rule.

At the same time, the previously outlawed Muslim Brotherhood must be included into the political mainstream and accepted as a legitimate actor in politics. However, the Brotherhood itself must address the concerns of their critics, in particular the Coptic Christians and the liberal secularists, who feel they have much to lose with Brotherhood political participation. The gap between the Brotherhood and the secularists must be bridged to bring about a united, progressive, and democratic Egypt through a common platform.[ix]

Though much is left uncertain with regards to Egypt’s political prospects, a glimmer of hope remains. For the first time in decades, Egyptians have been inspired to actively participate in the political process, and aspire towards a brighter future. If any lesson should be drawn from the struggles at Tahrir Square, it is that society can help transform its political destiny, and provide the foundations to a free and transparent democracy.


[i] UPI, “Report: Egyptians Vote for Change”, (21/3/11), (Accessed on March 26, 2011), http://www.upi.com/Top_News/World-News/2011/03/20/Report-Egyptians-vote-for-change/UPI-20511300636030/

[ii] Bradley, Matt and Matthew Rosenberg, “Egypt Approves Amendments,” The Wall Street Journal,

(Accessed on March 25, 2011) http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703292304576212680100740432.html

[iii] Hendawi, Hamza and Maggle Michael, “Egyptians Vote in Referendum, First Major Test of

Transition to Democracy,” The Globe and Mail, (Accessed on March 23, 2011) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/africa-mideast/egyptians-vote-in-referendum-first-majortest-of-transition-to-democracy/article1948494/

[iv] The Globe and Mail, “Egyptian Constitutional Changes are too little, too soon,” (17/3/11),

(Accessed on March 23, 2011), http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/editorials/egyptian-constitutional-changes-are-too-little-too-soon/article1946488/

[v] Kienle,Eberhard, “Opposition groups in Egypt must now rise to the challenge of negotiating a

good transition”, Open Democracy, (Accessed on March 23, 2011), http://www.opendemocracy.net/eberhard-kienle/opposition-groups-in-egypt-must-now-rise-to-challenge-of-negotiating-good-transition

[vi] El-Din, Gamal Essam, “NDP’s battle of the camel,” Al Ahram Weekly, (Accessed on March 24,

2011), http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2011/1039/eg21.htm

[vii] Khouri, Rami G., “Egypt once again shows Arabs the way”, The Daily Star, (Accessed March 23,

2011), http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=10&categ_id=5&article_id=125766#axzz1HPNNgUpR

[viii] The New York Times, “Islamist group is rising force in a new Egypt,” (24/3/11), (Accessed on

March 24, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/25/world/middleeast/25egypt.html?_r=1&scp=5&sq=egypt%20referendum%202011&st=cse

[ix] AlMasry AlYoum, “Beyond the referendum”, (24/3/2011), (Accessed on March 25, 2011), http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/372773