On March 26, fewer than 1 million Egyptians approved, in a national referendum, momentous changes in their Constitution. Local and international groups and observers dismissed the government’s claims that more than 27 percent of all registered voters participated in the vote. Except for the ruling National Democratic party, the referendum was boycotted by virtually all other main organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, legal parties such as the Wafd and Tagammu, the Kefaya movement, and a variety of civil society groups and intellectuals.
The amending process might have been used constructively to foster an extended national debate about the nature and contours of the political system that will emerge once President Hosni Mubarak eventually passes from the scene. Instead, the perfunctory parliamentary discussion did not elicit a single substantive change in the draft amendments.
The referendum has revealed the reality of both the Egyptian political scene and US policy in the Middle East. For Egypt, it was a missed opportunity to have more openness in the political system. Instead, the referendum strengthened the system’s grip on power, with the risk of fostering more radicals in the generation to come.
The region’s regimes are well aware that the United States is burdened with the war in Iraq and is gripped by a contentious domestic debate over American actions in the Middle East. With stability back in vogue, US allies in the region have seized the moment to secure their domination of power. Despite a strongly critical White House statement the day after the embarrassingly-manipulated plebiscite took place, those in power in Cairoremain confident that American words will not be followed by pressure.
The US bases its policy in the region on a false notion of an axis of ‘moderate’ states especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. But the referendum revealed that in their domestic politics, these states are far from moderate. They also happen to pursue regional policies that often undermine rather than complement US interests. Now that this reality is in plain view, perhaps the Bush administration will finally realize that its black-and-white, good-versus-evil view of the region is illusory.
The amendments were significant in their impact on Egyptian political life. The regime?s Emergency powers, imposed after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, have given the government extraordinary leeway to prosecute crimes in security and military courts where there is no effective right of appeal. These are now supplemented by a permanent anti-terrorism provision in the Constitution. As part of the Constitution, the provisions will be difficult to expunge from daily life.
Perhaps the most chilling impact of the new security amendments is the emasculation of existing Articles 41, 44, and 45, which each originate in the liberal 1923 Constitution. These articles protect free speech, privacy and the right of dissent, and they have now been eviscerated.
Equally distressing is the weakening of the judiciary’s role in monitoring elections. Egyptian judges have displayed a sometimes remarkable commitment to the rule of law, including overseeing elections. Judicial oversight did not end election fraud but reduced it substantially. In order to ensure judicial oversight of elections, balloting in nationalelections was organized in stages. As a result of the new amendments, however, the elections will occur on a single day. Instead of judicial oversight there will now be an oversight committee with no clear mandate.
This is the sort of issue that might have been clarified and made much more precise through a serious public debate on the proposed amendments. However, the regime was not willing to allow this.
The amendments also include a ban on religion-based political parties, despite the fact that the Parties Law of 1977 already imposes such a ban. If the government was really serious about keeping religion out of politics, there would have been a simple solution: revising Article 2 of the Constitution that makes Islamic law the main source of legislation. If this had been done in concert with a ban on religion-based parties, the change would have been more coherent. Instead, the government would not even consider touching Article 2, because the state routinely exploits Islam and Islamic symbols as its main points of political reference.
Because the embrace of Islamic law, or Sharia, in the Constitution has not been changed, Egyptian women will remain deprived of their full rights as citizens, especially as the state has tended to accept a conservative interpretation of Sharia when it comes of women. As long as women’s rights remain constrained, this will be a source of instability. Women remain less than fully-equal citizens, and the amendments, advertised as ‘promoting democracy’ do nothing of the sort on behalf of women.
Egyptians are deeply religious in general, but many prefer that religion remain a private matter, not one for state intervention. Only the Muslim Brotherhood pursues an agenda to bring religion into public life. Many Egyptians are suspicious of groups such as the Brotherhood, which espouse Islamic law as the legal foundation for Egypt. Even so, the new amendment is both vague and sweeping. It was tailored to enable the government to succeed in its power struggle with the Brotherhood, without the addressing profoundly important questions about freedom and individual rights, and without pursuing alternative agendas, including liberal solutions for Egypt, which many citizens would applaud. Yet instead of empowering liberal and secular voices that may counterbalance Islamists trends, instead of encouraging Islamist activists to seek political compromise with non-Islamists, the new amendments work against moderate, especially liberal, voices.
We cannot dismiss the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood may have made a deal with the regime, if not explicitly then tacitly. The Brotherhood’s broader regional agenda, as reiterated at a conference in Cairo on March 29, actually overlaps with that of the government.
Mubarak had intimated that the changes in the presidential election system, enacted nearly three years ago to permit contested presidential elections, would be followed by constitutional amendments to limit an incumbent to two terms (as stipulated before 1981, when he came to power). This revision would have lent some balanced to the imposed amendments, but was not included among the numerous amendments.
The path to democracy in Egypt will be a longer journey because of the March 26 referendum. The coming weeks and months will be a time of trial for those intellectuals who claim to be committed to the liberal values that must underpin a democracy. The curtains have been drawn wide open for all to see the political realities of Egypt, and its false moderation. But that was the reality behind the curtain all along.
Hala Mustafa is a writer and the editor of the journal “Democracy at the Al-Ahram Foundation in Cairo. Augustus Richard Norton, a professor at Boston University, is the author of “Hizbullah just published by Princeton University Press. They wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.