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December 16, 2012, Sunday

How to read historic referendum in Egypt?

A historic constitutional referendum is being held in Egypt. The initial results are expected to be announced shortly after the voting.

The decision to hold a referendum amid clashes and protests has prevented a full understanding of what changes were proposed in the draft constitution. Demonstrations in Tahrir Square and around the presidential palace attracted all the attention.

The most important result of adopting the new constitution will be the new provision that the president will be elected for a maximum of two four-year terms. In the past, a person could be elected president without any time limit. Ousted former President Hosni Mubarak won six consecutive elections and ruled the country for three decades.

Other major amendments are strongly criticized by the opposition, such as the vague provisions on the state of religion, constitutional privileges granted to al-Azhar University, the confusing regulations on the press, and language related to women’s rights.

There were constant arguments and tension during the preliminary work of writing a new constitution that predate President Mohammed Morsi coming to office. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have remained united vis-à-vis the other groups, which feel threatened by this attitude. Azhar representatives on the constitutional commission working on the draft have sometimes left the floor. But in the end, although not perfect, Egypt has created its first democratic constitution within a very short time.

Like his move to remove the Mubarak-era generals from office in one night, Morsi took the constitution to a popular referendum by decree with a sudden decision. What would have happened if this decree had not been issued? The Constitutional Court, viewed as a remnant of the Mubarak regime, would have blocked the process.

If the constitution is adopted by the referendum, the opposition will keep raising its objections for a while; however, in the end, they will have to accept the results. Like it or not, the whole process was democratic. This suggests that democracy is actually not a perfect system. However, no better system or option has been discovered in the world yet.

If the constitution is adopted, this will mark a huge victory for the Muslim Brotherhood. Arguably the main actor behind Morsi’s decree, the Brotherhood responded to the opposition protests with counter-protests and it has done its best during the process to ensure that the constitution is approved. If it is not approved, there will be inevitable disagreements within the Muslim Brotherhood.

The adoption of the constitution will be a huge disappointment for the opposition and for those who led the opposition movement in the process, including Mohamed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabbahi.

All three of these men are accused of not representing the people and mobilizing the masses. The opposition only made a large appearance in Tahrir Square once and was outnumbered by members of the Muslim Brotherhood at the protests. The link between opposition groups is also weak; and it is for this reason that the effect of the adoption of the constitution on these relationships is also expected to be huge.

In the event that the constitution is rejected, Morsi will have the option to go to elections. If the opposition groups fail to make an alliance in that case, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafis will make up the majority in parliament again.

Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, Egypt should eliminate the current chaos. The country is experiencing constant turmoil as roads to Tahrir Square are blocked and clashes take place. The people are extremely cautious and fearful. The already poor economy is getting worse. This pleases Egypt’s enemies in particular. Irrespective of the results, the parties have to take constructive steps to resolve the political crisis and gather around the dialogue table. Otherwise, the crisis will mean the defeat of all Egyptians.

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