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An Egyptian worker sits on boxes of ballots at the Giza courthouse, in Cairo.
Associated Press/Photo by Amr Nabil
An Egyptian worker sits on boxes of ballots at the Giza courthouse, in Cairo.

New year, new referendum for Egypt

Egypt | As Egyptians prepare to vote on a new constitution, many wonder how much power words can wield

CAIRO—Open a box of candy from one of the local stores here in Egypt, and you may find a surprise: the face of the country’s top military leader staring back at you.

The small candies featuring Minister of Defense General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are one sign that politics can flavor nearly every area of Egyptian life these days, and especially this week, as Egyptians are set to vote in a public referendum to ratify a constitution and pave the way for presidential elections.

Much of the draft constitution comes directly from the short-lived previous constitution, which was signed into law under former President Mohamed Morsi on Dec. 26, 2012 and suspended on July 3, 2013 as part of his ouster.

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Morsi’s loss of popularity swelled toward the end of 2012 as concerns mounted regarding the constitution’s emphasis on Islamic law as the basis for legislation, as well as his declaration of virtually unfettered political power until the then-unfinished constitution could take effect.

Today, Egypt’s interim government seeks to complete the constitutional project with greater long-term success than Morsi was able to muster. Led by acting President Adly Mansour and Sisi, the current regime hopes to find strong public support for the new constitution as a vote of confidence in the post-Morsi “roadmap” proposed on July 3.

Where does the roadmap lead? The constitution and events that surround its passage yield plenty of clues but little certainty.

Amr Moussa, the Egyptian politician and former head of the Arab League who helmed the 50-person committee responsible for the constitution’s current draft, penned a New York Times article last week touting the benefits of the new document.

Moussa and proponents of the current regime emphasize popular changes made to the 2012 version, including expanded rights and protection for women and Christians, a ban on censorship, prohibition of torture, ambitious promises regarding urban development, a renewed commitment to honor international human rights agreements, and a mechanism for removing a president via withdrawal of confidence by parliament.

But numerous points of contention remain. For example, according to article 74: “It is prohibited to engage in any political activity or to form political parties on a religious basis or a discriminatory basis of gender, origin, sect, or geography.”

The concept of non-discrimination may carry appeal for Westerners, but in a country where the last democratically elected president belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, critics say the ban is a vaguely disguised maneuver to silence the current regime’s most prominent opposition.

A carry-over from the 2012 constitution also allows officials to try civilians in military courts for accusations that “represent direct attacks on military installations, camps, or what is in its territory.” Critics say that provision permanently augments the military’s already extensive powers over civilian affairs.

But despite the controversy, it’s striking that such discussion doesn’t dominate the national dialogue here in Egypt, even as polls are about to open. Beyond the reality that the constitution is virtually certain to pass, Egyptians know that displays of strength often carry more weight than official documents and formal agreements.

While Egyptians go to polling stations or boycott the vote, the former president who oversaw the previous constitution sits in prison ahead of the Feb. 1 re-start of his trial. With Morsi in jail facing charges that carry a potential death penalty, and the Muslim Brotherhood banned, even sections of the constitution that remain untouched since 2012 now carry radically different meanings.

Who will claim the power to determine the new constitution’s consequences? In the land of Rameses, a long line of formidable individuals, and more recently, a formidable military charged with executing the will of the people, has often held the greatest sway.

Perhaps that’s why many Egyptians seem more interested in the presidential elections than the constitutional referendum, and especially in one major question: Will Abdel el-Sisi, run for president?

The towering figure has become a national hero for many Egyptians who support Morsi’s ouster. Sisi, whom Morsi appointed before his removal, has gained both popularity and hatred from opponents as the most prominent face of the military and its most powerful leader.

If he joined the race, Sisi likely would win backing not only from a large base of personal fans but also from more unlikely supporters, like Egyptian liberals who may see him as the leader most able to lead Egypt toward greater stability.

While a new constitution could stipulate non-discrimination, freedom of expression, and prisoner’s rights, some observers say that if Egyptians can topple two presidents in less than two years, official documents may not carry the last word.

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