Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum: No Nail in the Coffin
by Randall Atkins, special correspondent for VoicesofOK.org
Cairo – Drunk on the victories of the recent revolution and ousting of their hated president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s youthful opposition may have just sobered up to the realities of their newly democratic state. The March 19th referendum on constitutional amendments, which they say did not go far enough, was not the change they envisioned when they took to the streets in January. Newly formed political parties, some of which have yet to even pick a name for themselves, fought to get the amendments voted down. This would have forced the entire constitution to be scraped and in the meantime, given them more freedom to organize and spread their message in a country which suffers from a lack of political awareness. Their overwhelming defeat at the polls – 77% voting Yes – is most definitely a set back that shows the vulnerability of the youth movements, but it is no “nail in the coffin.”
The first few baby steps toward a democratic state have been filled with the fear of sectarian violence and the desire to return and maintain stability, but by far, the biggest problem facing the opposition groups is an uninformed public. Examples of this are everywhere. In one case, a women stood in line for two and a half hours to cast her vote, just to turn around at the last second and ask the woman behind her which way she should vote. Better organized groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, that have been around longer know very well how to take advantage of the uneducated. They were busy delivering staple foods to the poor in sacks marked with the words “vote yes” just before the referendum. At least one person was arrested for trying to convince people in the voting line that (if you are Muslim you vote YES ) and (if you are Christian you vote NO) This of course is not surprising to anyone that has experience with the public education system. Some teachers are paid as little as $50/ mo and are forced to supplement their income by offering their own students private tutoring after school. Middle class families that want to provide an adequate education to their children must pay around $6,000 or more per year for tuition at private schools. This is obviously a luxury most simply cannot afford.
At this early stage in the new Egypt, the division among political groups and social classes has yet to be set in stone. Ample room for change still exists, even within the new amendments, which call on the yet-to-be-elected parliament to draft a new constitution. The coming election of parliament will be yet another opportunity for Egypt’s budding new revolutionary youth.
The old constitution was created by and gave immense power to the office of the president. Shortly after Mubarak’s removal from office, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces suspended the document and hastily formed a committee comprised of academics and legal experts to adjust it according to the will and demands of the people. What came out of this effort were eight new amendments and the removal of article 179 that previously gave Egypt’s president the power to use military courts to prosecute civilians suspected of terrorism. The majority of amendments in and of themselves were not controversial. Article 77 for example, limited the term of president to two four year terms and others opened up the election process to monitoring by the judges.
In spite of the initial disappointment of the March 19 referendum, the youthful opposition and their newly formed political parties have actually been given a new opportunity to remake the Egypt of their desires. A more sober vision and lessons learned from their first post-revolution election are part of the outcome.
Still unknown is how the Egyptian Military will respond and how effective these newly-formed parties will be at informing the Egyptian people about future candidates and issues. The real long-term affects of the revolution are going to be decided in the coming years by a new Egyptian parliament, working with a new president under a new constitution.