Cairo Divided by Debate Over New Constitution

Brotherhood opponents, however, fear the group will hijack the constitutional process and draft the document in accordance with strict Islamic principles. In recent weeks, calls to reverse the "election first, constitution second" sequence are echoing through Egyptian political and activist circles with ever-greater frequency and fervor.

"The constitution should be the cornerstone of the state. It should be the apparatus to get the parliament seated," said Tarek El Khouly, spokesman for the April 6 Movement, a prominent youth activist group in Egypt. "They [the Muslim Brotherhood] will write the constitution to serve them politically."

April 6 is joined by a host of movements that oppose holding elections in September before a new constitution is in place. The National Association for Change, an umbrella reform group led by prominent political figure and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, specifies "Constitution first" as one of its primary demands. And nascent, secular political parties, who fear a poor performance at the ballot box could politically marginalize them for years to come, are also leveling pressure.

"To make a constitution for a community is another matter than voting in a parliament," said Iman Yehia, co-founder of the Socialists Party, due for legal recognition in the coming weeks. "All the sectors of the community -- political, religious, and social -- must meet together."

This resurgent debate is emblematic of the broader political struggle in today's Egypt, where a smooth transition toward civilian democracy is proving elusive, . The lack of consensus on the sequence of fundamental political procedure is compounded by protests-turned-clashes, interfaith violence, and stalled trials of former prominent politicians.

But Brotherhood members and allies warn that dismissing or defying the referendum, the country's first genuinely democratic vote in history, would set a dangerous precedent for the country's quest to shed its legacy of tyranny.

"If anybody has fears, they can act on them by not voting for the Muslim Brotherhood," said El Beltagy. "But they shouldn't try to force their opinion on the majority of people in Egypt."

"Constitution first" proponents offer legal arguments against the referendum's mandate to hold elections first. The Socialists Party's Yehia argued that voters took to the polls with the impression that the eight articles marked for amendment would be incorporated into the 1971 constitution. After the result was issued, however, the military declared a new constitution that installed the amended articles along with 55 other selected articles. Yehia argues this unilateral declaration renders the document invalid.

"The thought was to do some changes and make the 1971 constitution go on," said Yehia. "The referendum doesn't have any legitimacy anymore in this regard. They [the military] didn't respect the results."

Brotherhood opponents, including Yehia, also say that the Brotherhood manipulated impoverished, provincial constituents, which comprise the majority of Egyptian voters, into voting for the referendum. In a country with nearly 35 percent illiteracy and 22 percent below the locally defined poverty line, according to World Bank statistics, the Brotherhood's vast network of free social programs has garnered the group widespread support.

"The Brotherhood used religion and the mosques to encourage the 'yes' vote in the referendum," said Yehia. "To vote 'yes' was 'yes' to Allah, 'yes' to Islam."

The Muslim Brotherhood vows they will only pursue a constitutional framework and legislation that is consistent with the will of Egypt's majority. The people, according to group officials, will determine if Sharia is the appropriate legislative basis for the country.

"The Islamic laws are what we are trying to pursue within the boundaries of the constitution and the Supreme Court and the people's opinion," said the Brotherhood's El Beltagy. 'We will adopt the people's choice."

But many Egyptians, regardless of political or religious affiliation, are simply growing fatigued by the lengthy transitional period. Political scientists say instability and a badly hit economy are exacting a heavy price.

"People are fed up with the continuance of the transitional period and want to see an end to it," said Cairo University professor Mostafa Kamel El Sayed. "Parliamentary elections will bring us closer to that end."

Some Egyptians, moreover, consider the constitution debate a destructive issue pushed on a reluctant population by political elites. That debate, according to critics such as Alamonta Ser Bellah, foments divisions at a time when national unity is the foremost priority.

On July 1, Ser Bellah sat in a tent in the middle of Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Egyptian uprising, as thousands of demonstrators chanted, "We want the fall of the regime! We want the fall of [military chief] Tantawi!" His friend held a poster that read, "We want retribution first. Not the Constitution. Not elections".

"First we started as one hand. No one was asking if you are liberal or Salafi," said Ser Bellah. "This [the constitution debate] is not our problem. The problem is to get the murderers. This is the issue."

Presented by

Brian Dabbs

Brian is a journalist based in Kenya. He previously wrote and edited for the English edition of the Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Global

Just In