the Guantlet

Not so fast, Egypt

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Following any revolution, there is likely to be a hangover as both citizens and leaders begin to face tough questions about the future of their country. One month after Hosni Mubarak was ousted, Egypt is now facing these questions in earnest, as made apparent after a referendum last Saturday on constitutional changes. While 41 per cent of Egyptians turned out to vote -- and nearly 80 per cent of those who did vote approved the amendments -- there is a risk that Egypt is moving too quickly to build a lasting democracy.

In many ways, reforms were modest. The changes included limiting the term presidents can serve to eight years (a significant change after Mubarak's 30-year reign), loosening requirements for independent presidential candidates and limiting the use of emergency laws. All three seem significant -- indeed, they are -- but many citizens were calling for a complete rewrite of Egypt's constitution. The army, which has been leading the reforms, appointed a panel to decide which amendments would be voted on last Saturday. An entirely new constitution, they decided, would take too long to be immediately worthwhile -- better to let the president elected in six months decide.

Rushing through the nine amendments rather than drafting an entirely new constitution has its shortcomings. The most serious worry is that the new president may not choose to voluntarily limit his powers. Leaving decisions like more judicial independence to the new president introduces the risk that desired reforms will not be instituted.

Another worry is that while pushing to hold elections quickly is popular, it's also likely to prevent new parties from forming in time to run. It's unsurprising, then, that the two parties already in existence -- the National Democratic Party that Mubarak belonged to and the Muslim Brotherhood -- promoted the 'yes' vote for Saturday's election. A quick presidential election means one of these two parties will be elected.

Secular liberal democrats will likely be unable to rally enough support if elections happen quickly. This is a problem. Mohamed ElBaradei, a popular Egyptian secularist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, had stones and shoes thrown at him by Islamists when he tried to vote Saturday. Tensions also resurfaced in more serious ways -- the killing of 13 Coptic Christians in riots since last month demonstrates the unwillingness of some Islamists to allow reforms which accept other belief systems.

It's probably too late to slow down the push for immediate presidential elections. While the army has been accepting of protestor demands, they appear unwilling both to put elections on hold and to appoint a council to rewrite the constitution. In part this is because the army wishes to transfer power as soon as possible -- they don't want to be accused of being too involved. But Egyptians trust the army and beginning the process for a new constitution can be done responsibly. Pressure can still be placed on the army to delay parliamentary elections until other parties have time to form. In Cairo, 40 per cent voted 'no' to constitutional amendments -- this shows the strength of the secular liberal democrats, who campaigned hard against the amendments. It also shows their wish to dampen the power of the incumbent party and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although there have been problems, the changes Egypt has undergone in little over a month are impressive. The press is revitalized, now able to criticize the government and speak freely. The election Saturday was Egypt's freest in 30 years, if not ever. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, which was long silenced under Mubarak, is undergoing change -- young members are pushing for internal elections and seem willing to act as a legitimate opposition.

Despite the problems, Egypt has done a laudatory job handling the revolution. The Egyptian revolution has become a model for other Arab countries, which are looking to Egypt for the best way forward. The difficult times, however, are just beginning.

. . Gauntlet Editorial Board