Will the Constitution Referendum Be Egypt's Last Chance for Democracy?

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Tarek Nour will face the most important test of his professional life on Tuesday.

Nour is the owner of the largest advertising agency in Egypt. The company which bears his name, Tarek Nour Communications, produced a $3 million get-out-the-vote campaign to encourage the Egyptian public to vote yes on the new constitution.

A month ago, before the final draft of the constitution was completed, Nour hung giant posters in the streets of the large cities, with the words “Yes to the constitution” in bright colors.

Nour has good reason to assume the new constitution will not suffer from the birth pangs of its predecessor, which was formulated during the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is familiar with the committee that draws up the constitution. He was close to the military regime that has been the real ruling power in Egypt since the presidency of Hosni Mubarak. Nour even ran a campaign for Mubarak in the 2005 election. Nour was also the campaign manager for Ahmed Shafik, a candidate for president in the 2012 election, who lost by a small margin to deposed President Mohammed Morsi.

At present, Nour is convinced that the public will not disappoint him. In interviews with Egyptian media outlets, he has said he expects at least 60 percent of eligible voters to arrive at the voting booths with at least 70 percent of them casting their ballot in support of the constitution. These numbers aren’t coincidental. They are intended to triumph over the turnout rate and level of support for the previous constitutional referendum, which was eventually invalidated. The previous constitution may have won the support of 66 percent of ballots cast, but only 30 percent of eligible voters turned out at the polls then.

The numbers on Tuesday will determine the degree of legitimacy of the constitution, which was composed by a committee of 50 public representatives. These 50 individuals appear to represent all sectors of Egyptian society, except for the Muslim Brotherhood, which continues to wage a struggle against the constitution in the street. It is because of this struggle that the other political parties and the top echelon of the government are trying to bring as many people as possible to the polls. Special organizing committees that were established in recent days are fielding a network get-out-the-vote activists across the country. Special representatives went to speak with the heads of the Bedouin tribes in the Sinai peninsula. Activists are distributing copies of the constitution in rural areas in an informational campaign carrying the slogan “Read your constitution.” In Cairo and Alexandria, special gatherings have been held to explain the principles of the constitution and the importance of supporting it.

New freedoms

It is not hard to support the new constitution. It includes many clauses that protect freedom of expression and citizens’ rights, and it forbids all forms of torture. The constitution also permits the establishment of newspapers without any serious bureaucratic impediment and forbids the arrest of journalists for expressing their opinions. These freedoms are something new that was absent from the previous constitution. The new laws would still permit sending journalists to prison for incitement to violence or discrimination against citizens based on religion or ethnicity or for insulting the honor of citizens. The interpretation of these crimes may be in the hands of Egyptian courts, but Egyptian journalists have already experienced “interpretations” that have sent many of them to prison.

According to the new constitution religion will resort to the previous, cloudy status it held, taking into account the fact that most Egyptian citizens are practicing Muslims, although not necessarily religious or radical in orientation. Islamic religious law will continue to be a primary source for legislation, but religious sages will not longer be charged with interpreting the religious law, as was the case with the constitution written by the Muslim Brotherhood. When necessary, the legislature will consult with Al-Azhar University, which has become independent from government control after decades in the clutches of the governing apparatus.

The constitution forbids the establishment of parties based on a religious platform. The state, which uses religious law as the source of its authority to enact legislation, is not interested in religion-based politics. However, the state is proud that even the Salafist Al-Nour party participated in the writing of the new constitution and will compete in elections. This is one of the paradoxes that characterizes Egypt and confounds the West. Nevertheless, there exists a great fear among many that the Muslim Brotherhood has not said its last word and that it will continue the battle it has been waging against the revolution that backfired on it, fanning the glowing coals in Cairo’s streets.

'Last chance for democracy'

Tuesday's constitutional referendum is the last chance for Egypt to establish a real democracy, wrote commentator Yassin Sanad in the magazine Democracy published by the government-controlled newspaper of record, Al-Ahram. Sanad is not bothered by the fact that Egypt is ruled by a general and that the constitution has been written according to his instructions. To the contrary, the Egyptian military contributed "in the most wonderful manner" to the success of the Egyptian revolution, which began on January of 2011, according to Sanad. "When the armed forces felt the country was on the verge of a civil war after the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood, they immediately took preemptive steps to preserve national security,” he wrote.

Sanad has touted the presidency of Defense Minister Abdel Fattah-al Sisi as "absolutely necessary" after the new constitution is ratified, when the public is asked to support the next step toward democracy.

This will be the next stage on the path mapped out by the army six months ago. According to Sanad, after the constitution is approved, either presidential or parliamentary elections will take place within 60 to 90 days. In those elections, many believe, Sisi will ask to become the next president of Egypt, which has been fated since 1952 to have general standing atop the pyramid of government.

A man carries a box full of voting ballots near Egyptian soldiers standing guard outside a school that will be used as a polling station on January 13, 2014.Credit: AFP
An Egyptian worker carries boxes of ballots at the Giza courthouse, in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, January. 13, 2014. Credit: AP

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