Worldview: Constitutional referendum a turning point for Egypt

In Cairo, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton greets the familyof Khairy Ramadan Ali, killed during January protests.
In Cairo, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton greets the familyof Khairy Ramadan Ali, killed during January protests.
Posted: March 17, 2011

Overshadowed by the terrifying events in Japan and the violence in Libya, the struggle for Mideast democracy will reach a turning point this week in Egypt.

I'm not referring to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's visit to Cairo on Wednesday, including a walk through Tahrir Square, the scene of last month's revolution. That visit was significant, both for what happened and what didn't, but I'll get to that later.

I refer instead to a national referendum Saturday that will consider several amendments to Egypt's constitution. The vote will determine whether the country advances toward the democratic reforms the rebels are seeking, or slides toward a mix of authoritarian and Islamist rule.

Let me first give you the good news about Egypt: In stark contrast to the bloodshed in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, most ongoing battles in Cairo involve points of law, not weapons. That doesn't mean that this legal strife is not tense and divisive; it will decide whether new, more democratic political forces can emerge on the Egyptian scene.

At first glance, the proposed constitutional amendments appear to make some positive changes, such as limiting Egyptian presidents to two four-year terms and curbing their power to maintain an indefinite state of emergency.

But then things get sticky. Many Egyptian constitutional experts complain that the military - which is temporarily in charge - failed to include the country's top constitutional experts on the panel that wrote the amendments. It did include jurists close to the old regime, along with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization.

"We are worried about the way of thinking of the military in forming such a committee," says Nasser Amin, head of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary.

Critics say the referendum fails to mandate the rewriting of the current, much-criticized constitution. One hotly debated article of that document decrees that the principles of sharia (Islamic law) provide the source for all legislation. Many of the young rebels want the definite article the changed to a, meaning sharia is only one of many sources.

What really scares the young rebels, however, is that the amendments set up an optional process for rewriting the constitution that, if used, would effectively hand control to the Muslim Brotherhood and pols from the old regime.

Here's how it would work: If the next parliament so chooses, it can form a committee to draft a new constitution. But elections for the next parliament are set for June, according to the military's timetable. This doesn't allow enough time for the rebels to form new parties, and gives the advantage to the only political forces that already have structure and funds - the former ruling NDP party, which will return under a new name, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

"It won't be a fair fight," I was told by Shady El Ghazaly Harb, a 32-year-old surgeon and member of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth - the organizational leaders of the revolution. "The next parliament might be overwhelmed by the Brotherhood and the NDP, who would form the next constitution. That would be a disaster."

Not surprising, nearly all the groups that led the revolt, along with all opposition parties, are urging the public to vote no on the referendum. They want the military to postpone parliamentary elections until after an interim period of a year, during which a new constitution is drafted through a more open process. This would also give new parties time to organize.

So, Americans - who have a dog in the Egyptian democracy fight - should be watching to see what happens Saturday. After all, Egypt is the largest and most important Arab country. If Egypt's revolution goes well, it could help stabilize a reeling region (whose oil, unfortunately, appears even more crucial as Japan's reactors melt down).

This brings me back to Clinton, who said in Cairo, "No one is permitted to hijack this revolution." The United States would "help in any way possible," she added.

Yet the leaders of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth refused to meet with Clinton in Cairo. Harb told me by phone that the group had "a personal problem with Mrs. Clinton" because her early statements "were totally against the revolution and supported the [Mubarak] regime."

I wish Harb and the others had met with Clinton. She surely grasps now that Egypt is central to a Mideast whose uprisings are mostly going awry. She offered Egypt an economic-aid package - including credits and new trade benefits - that could help create desperately needed jobs for Egypt's youth bulge.

But I hope she was also urging the Egyptian military, with whom we have economic leverage, to listen more closely to the young rebels. In a region where U.S. influence is waning and the White House is still groping for a policy, we need Egypt to succeed.


E-mail Trudy Rubin

at trubin@phillynews.com.

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