Analysis |

Egypt's Constitution: A Vote of Confidence in the Military Regime

The constitution will be approved, but the real matter of interest is the voter turnout, which will determine Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The popular Egyptian poet Abdel Rahman el-Abnudi is sure that Egypt’s new constitution is “a rare gem,” a historic event on a par with “the crossing of the Bar-Lev Line in the October War,” no less.

In honor of the two-day national referendum that began on Tuesday, el-Abnudi composed a long poem that he read for more than six minutes on Egyptian state television, in which he lavished praise upon Egypt’s constitution and heaped scorn upon the Muslim Brotherhood’s brief time in power.

El-Abnudi was born in the village of Abnud in southern Egypt, in a conservative religious province that suffered decades of neglect. This area is also home to an important power center of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are trying to thwart the referendum from proceeding smoothly, mainly by endeavoring to keep voters from going to the polls. Because beyond obtaining the approval of more than 50 million voters for the constitution, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military regime aspires to bring out such a massive number of voters to the country’s 13,700 polling stations that it will confer public legitimacy on the referendum.

The constitution will be approved, but the real matter of interest is the voter turnout. If the ad campaigns that have been running for the past few weeks are able to generate a turnout greater than 35 percent (the turnout for the last referendum in 2012) and more than 65-percent support, el-Sisi will be able to boast of “a victory for democracy” and bolster his struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Unlike the previous referendum and constitution, which were hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and sparked the biggest and most violent political uproar since the revolution − and eventually brought about the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime − the present constitution was approved by the formulating committee with hardly any protest, without any serious clashes and without any need to trouble the Constitutional Court. Even the Salafi representatives from the al-Nour Party, who were part of the committee, bowed before it.

On the face of it, this is a good constitution. The sections concerning human and civil rights are among the most extensive seen in any Egyptian constitution since the 1952 revolution. In regard to religious law, the status quo that was in the previous constitution is maintained, and it is to serve as “a main source for legislation” but without unauthorized religious sages having the authority to hand down rulings that are legally binding. The sole religious interpretive body will be Al-Azhar, whose independence is not guaranteed in the constitution − and this is another innovation − but it has proven itself up to now as a defensive shield against the Muslim Brotherhood movement whose spiritual leader, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, is perceived as a fierce rival and harsh critic of Al-Azhar.

The problem is that the constitution, good as it may be, still gives very wide room to laws that could be used to place vague limits on civil rights. Such, for example, is the section that stipulates equal status for men and women and obligates the state to protect women from any violent attack, but at the same time this section says that “the state will enable the woman to reconcile the needs of the family with the needs of the workplace.” What are “the needs of the family”? No explanation is given.

Another example is the section concerning freedom of the press, which states that the Supreme Council for Journalism will oversee “the professional, objective and economic activity of media outlets.” Many Egyptian journalists already know what these conditions mean when the authority to interpret such laws are left in the hands of the courts. Thus, the outcome of the as-yet-unscheduled parliamentary election will be of such great importance, since the results of its legislation are what will determine to what extent the constitution reflects the revolution’s ambitions.

“We sacrificed many casualties in many uprisings and revolutions until our national military brought victory, to the sweeping desire of the people in the January 25 revolution and on June 30 [the date when the Muslim Brotherhood regime collapsed], which called for a life of freedom and human dignity under the wings of social justice, and for the restoration of the people’s self-will,” says the preface to the constitution.

This may be the constitution of “the people,” but it is equally the constitution of the military that exempted itself from criticism of its budget and retained broad authority both in determining who serves as defense minister and in defining the security threats facing the nation. And evidently we will also soon see the military holding the post of the presidency, as General el-Sisi declared a few days ago that he would accept the “will of the people” if the people want him as president.

The constitutional referendum and the election that will be held within 60-90 days of its approval are still no guarantee of political stability, for the struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood is far from over. Equally, or even more, important is the battle to boost the economy, find sources for billions of dollars in loans, rehabilitate the tourism industry − a key source of income − and raise funds for investment in industrial infrastructure and to create jobs. A constitution alone won’t buy the groceries.

Egyptian women queue outside a polling center before voting on a new constitution, Jan. 14, 2014.Credit: AFP
An Egyptian ululates in front of a polling station after casting her vote in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014.Credit: AP

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