Cairo Divided by Debate Over New Constitution

Are elections scheduled too early to be truly democratic?



CAIRO, Egypt -- When Egyptians took to the streets in January and February to force the ouster of strongman President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest and most influential opposition force, played it cool. They didn't try to claim the reigns of the protest movement sweeping the country. They mostly waited for the smoke to clear.

That patience has paid off. In the nearly five months since Mubarak's departure, Brotherhood members have translated democratic theory into practice in impressive fashion, ushering them to new political prominence in Egypt.

The Democracy ReportThe group pushed, successfully, for a "yes" vote in Egypt's mid-March national referendum, the first transparent poll in the Arab republic's history. The result, reached with an 80 percent voter turnout rate, overwhelmingly endorsed a plan that will require the military to hand power to a civilian government first, with the drafting of a new Egyptian constitution coming second. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for September. An alternative plan, supported by liberal and youth movements, called for delaying elections so that lesser known opposition groups could have more time to campaign and to discuss drafting the new constitution.

Even though a recent Gallup poll showed only 15 percent support for the Muslim Brotherhood -- compared to 10 percent for Mubarak's now-disgraced party -- no party is well known enough to be a viable competitor. Scheduling the vote so soon could deny those parties enough time to truly organize, making the September elections less than fully representative. The Brotherhood could be poised for significant electoral success, a victory that will put them in position to lead the drafting of Egypt's constitution, a document that could persist for generations.

"That's what the people wanted. The people were given different options and they agreed to the elections first during the referendum," said Brotherhood stalwart Mohamed El Beltagy, also a leading member of the group's Freedom and Justice Party. "The majority shaped the steps of the process during the transitional period."

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."