In Egypt, Many Challenges Remain

70 percent of Egyptians voted for Constitutional amendments – an unfortunate result. What the country needs is a new, legitimate constitution, not an incomplete reform of the old system. Many battles remain to be fought as the country begins its slow transition to democracy.

After eighteen days of relentless protests, against a ruthless police state that took the life of hundreds of peaceful protesters and left thousands more injured, finally ending the 30-year authoritarian rule of Hosni Mubarak, the revolution in Egypt continues through different means. Egyptians succeeded in forcing Ahmed Shafiq, an ex-military appointed prime minister by Mubarak days before his overthrow, to resign, obliging the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to form a new interim cabinet headed by Essam Sharaf, University Professor and a protest figure. Egyptians have triumphed as well in storming the notorious State Security headquarters, often likened to the GDR’s Stasi, finally leading to its official disbandment.

A critical juncture

On Saturday, March 19, Egyptians found themselves at a critical juncture when they went to the polling stations to vote on a set of proposed constitutional amendments to the 1971 constitution, in what has been quite rightly hailed as the first fair vote that the country witnesses in decades. Even though the country seemed to have been divided into two camps, the amendments have passed in a landslide 77-23% vote. The anti-amendment camp, to which I belonged for reasons I have explained elsewhere, was mainly motivated by a principled rejection of amendments that restore legitimacy to a defunct constitution. The pro-amendment camp, of which the Muslim Brotherhood among other groups proved to be a key component, was largely motivated by pro-stability arguments, adopting a pragmatic approach and favoring a swift march towards institution-building. Many pro-amendment voters were mobilized by Salafi groups that convinced them that an approval of the amendments is a guarantee of Sharia law remaining a source of legislation.

The way forward

The SCAF stated that a declaration of constitutional principles will be issued within 48 hours to include the amended articles along with a set of other articles. Even though the passing of the amendments was not the ideal scenario according to most members of the Egyptian political elite, the battles that remain before most Egyptians remain nearly the same: Egyptians will have to make sure that the much anticipated declaration of constitutional principles limit the period the military council is in charge and set a clear road for democracy and institution-building, including the definition of the rules by which a new constitution will be drafted (through a directly or indirectly elected constitutional convention) and the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections (which one comes first is an important decision to be made, while parliamentary elections being held first seems to be the more likely scenario).

In the meantime, there will also be other battles pertaining to the new laws that will allow for the formation of new parties, syndicates and civil society organizations and enable existing opposition parties to formulate their programs, consolidate their bases and mobilize their supporters to compete in free and fair elections. Last but in no way least, swift measures have to be taken to investigate and end military transgressions and illegal practices against civilians, particularly activists, especially military trials of civilians.

The good news is that Egyptians are creating and experiencing, against all odds, a vibrant form of deliberative democracy in which more and more citizens feel empowered, for the first time in decades, and come to realize the power of their collective efficacy, which makes the prospects of the inevitable battles ahead quite propitious.

Read more in this debate: Ragnar Weilandt, Abdullah Al-Arian, Joseph Hammond.

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