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Egyptians Endorse Constitutional Change Amid Mounting Polarisation

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussal al-Omrani

CAIRO, Mar 23 2011 (IPS) - Egyptians overwhelmingly endorsed a raft of proposed constitutional changes in a nationwide referendum on Saturday. But while the vote — the first since the Feb. 11 ouster of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak — was hailed as the freest in recent Egyptian history, it also served to polarise public opinion along broadly sectarian lines.

“The enthusiasm with which the people participated in the referendum showed that the spirit of the January 25 Revolution is still alive,” Egypt’s Coalition for Revolutionary Youth noted in a statement on Monday. “But the vote was marked by a degree of polarisation and religious division, which threatens the national unity that had been a hallmark of the revolution.”

The approved constitutional changes — which include the amendment of eight articles of the national charter, the addition of two new articles, and the abrogation of one article — aim to liberalise Egypt’s electoral process following three decades of autocratic rule by the Mubarak regime. Among other things, the amendments will ease conditions for launching presidential candidacies, set a two-term limit on the office of the president, and place all stages of the electoral process under judicial supervision.

The proposed amendments, unveiled on Feb. 25, were drawn up by an eight-member committee of experts appointed by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has run the nation’s affairs since Mubarak’s ouster. According to the timetable set by the SCAF, parliamentary polls will be held in June and presidential elections in August.

A newly-created constitutional article, meanwhile, mandates that the incoming, democratically-elected parliament form a 100-member committee to draw up a completely new national charter within six months of the scheduled elections.

According to official results of the referendum announced Sunday night, more than 14 million Egyptians — some 77 percent of those who cast ballots — approved the proposed amendments. Roughly four million people, meanwhile — about 23 percent of those who voted — rejected the changes.

The poll saw an unprecedented turnout of 41 percent of Egypt’s roughly 45 million eligible voters — far higher than previous elections and referendums. Turnout for last year’s parliamentary polls, for example, which were marked by widespread reports of electoral fraud, was estimated at less than 10 percent of the voting public — typical of most Mubarak-era elections.

“I never saw a turnout like I did today,” said the head of a judicial committee charged with supervising the balloting in a district of Cairo, who had also overseen parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2010. “Despite the relatively small security presence in and around voting stations, the public cooperated with procedures and followed instructions in a very disciplined manner.”

“It was very impressive,” he told IPS, preferring not to give his name. “In the wake of the revolution, the people seem to be fully aware of the importance of their participation in the electoral process.”

Mohamed Salem, a 55-year-old government employee who helped supervise balloting at another Cairo polling station, was no less impressed.

“For the past 20 years I’ve assisted at polling stations, but always did so with a troubled conscience,” Salem told IPS. “But with this referendum I felt — for the very first time — that I was doing something good for the country.”

But while the referendum was hailed as a democratic milestone, it also led to a degree of sectarian polarisation unseen since the January 25 uprising.

According to political observers, most of those who voted against the amendments did so because they want an entirely new constitution drawn up, while those who endorsed the changes did so to preserve Article 2 of the current charter. Article 2 asserts that “Islam is the religion of the state” and that Islamic Law represents “the principal source of legislation.”

“The majority of those who voted ‘yes’ were voting to preserve Article 2,” Diaa Rashwan, senior political analyst at the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said on a popular talk show after results were announced. “Those who cast ‘no’ votes, meanwhile, want a new political landscape, including a brand-new constitution,” Rashwan asserted.

“We opposed the amendments because we want a new constitution,” Bahy Eddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, told IPS. “This is because the current charter gives the president absolute power and reduces parliament to mere window dressing — no matter who holds the parliamentary majority.”

Hassan also criticised the SCAF-appointed committee that drafted the amendments, which, he said, “didn’t allow for national debate about the details of the proposed changes and didn’t provide enough time — less than a month — to discuss and understand the complex issues involved.”

Like most of those who voted against the changes, Hassan would also prefer to see elections delayed for at least one year so as to allow new political parties to establish themselves and promote their respective political platforms. As it currently stands, the Muslim Brotherhood represents Egypt’s only political force with the organisational capacity to successfully compete in national elections.

Hafez Abu Saeda, head of the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, believes religion played a “major role” in the way most people voted in the referendum. “Those who endorsed the amendments mostly represented the Islamist trend, while those who voted against them were mostly Coptic Christians and secularists,” Abu Saeda told IPS.

Abu Saeda’s assertion appears to be borne out by conversations with voters who endorsed the changes. According to Islam Lutfi, a 33-year-old member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing who voted in favour of the amendments, he and his colleagues did so “mostly to preserve Article 2.”

Lutfi told IPS: “After Christians mobilised against the proposed changes to ‘stop the Muslims from taking over the country’ — and with churches bussing Christians to polling centres en masse to cast ‘no’ votes — many Muslims who had been reluctant to participate turned out in force to support the amendments.”

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