First post-Mubarak poll crystallizes democratic forces’ weakness

After a sweeping majority voted in favor of the army- and Islamist-backed constitutional amendments, most forces that called for a no-vote recognized the results, and some said they feel the pressure to step up their grassroots presence to counter the leverage of the Muslim Brotherhood in the upcoming elections.

“It is over; this is the majority’s opinion and we have to respect it,” said Justice Hesham al-Bastawisi, Vice-President of Egypt’s Cassation Court, who was among the most outspoken detractors of the amendments. The 59-year-old presidential hopeful had contended that the old constitution should be abrogated altogether rather than amended.

On Sunday evening, the Supreme Electoral Commission announced that 77.2 percent of Egyptians voted "yes" versus 22.8 percent who voted "no" in a historic referendum that witnessed an unprecedentedly high turn out.

Nearly 18 million out of 45 million eligible voters lined up Saturday outside more than 40,000 secondary polling stations across the country. They expressed their position on eight amended articles that mainly relaxed eligibility conditions for presidential candidates, limited the number of terms a president can serve, and ensured full judicial oversight of elections.

Also, the amendments stipulated that the new parliament should elect a commission of 100 members to draft a new Constitution within a year from the time parliamentarians are elected. Despite the few irregularities reported, this week’s poll was a far cry from previous pervasively fraudulent elections.

The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces is expected to issue a temporary constitutional communiqué with the publicly-endorsed amendments on Tuesday to regulate upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Upon Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the military took over and announced the suspension of the Constitution and the dissolution of parliament.

“We hope the military will take into consideration the simple reservations that the minority had over the verbatim of the amendments, namely the article that talks about the president’s nationality,” added al-Bastawisi.

Legal experts had voiced concerns over the content of some of the amendments, including provisions stipulating that the president should not only be Egyptian but born to two Egyptian parents, that the vice-president can be appointed rather than elected and that the commission in charge of drafting the Constitution will not be elected directly by the people.

Most of these concerns were voiced during the lead-up to the vote. For almost three weeks, political and intellectual salons swarmed with debates over the matter.

While the “yes” forces held that the approval of the amendments would expedite the transitional period, pave the way for early presidential and parliamentary elections and send the military back to the barracks, the “no” camp advocates insisted the interim period should be stretched for at least one year, until a new constitution is passed and new political forces arise.

Otherwise, early elections would only benefit Islamists and the remnants of Mubarak’s regime, contended the amendments’ critics. These fears were exacerbated during the referendum, as Islamists who backed the constitutional changes used all tools to influence voters. The Muslim Brotherhood launched an aggressive campaign in favor of a "yes" vote by hanging posters in different provinces and distributing leaflets at mosques. The group went further by accusing opponents of the amendments of receiving foreign aid and deceiving the public.

Salafis, who toed the same line, spearheaded a full-fledged religious campaign, with their preachers telling lay people in rural centers that the "yes" vote was a religious obligation. Some of their preachers were also reported to be playing on sectarian sensitivities by saying that Muslims should stand up to Copts who voted against the amendments.

The Coptic Church expressed opposition to the amendments and called for a new Constitution.

“The mobilization of people along religious lines should not be overlooked, and certain measures should be taken to avoid the re-occurrence of such practices,” said Shady Harb, from the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, a loose body formed after during the revolution.

Along with most secular and civil parties, the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth opposed the amendments. Several public figures adopted the same stance, including the nation’s three most prominent presidential candidates: Mohamed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa and al-Bastawisi.

Yet their voices could not influence the majority of the electorate.

“All parties should work hard to reach out to the people. They should not leave one political force to communicate with the masses and then complain,” said al-Bastawisi.

Harb, whose is also a youth leader of the Democratic Front Party, could not agree more with al-Bastawisi. “We know that we do not have the organizational capabilities that would allow us to reach out to villages and other provinces yet,” Harb said. “Our organizational structure cannot compete with the Muslim Brotherhood yet.”

“This is why we are asking for the postponement of the [parliamentary] elections so we can have fair competition,” he said, suggesting that the presidential poll be held first to give old and nascent parties enough chance to build strong support-bases.

Earlier, the military had said that parliamentary elections would precede the presidential poll. Most probably the two polls will be held in June and August respectively. The opposition holds that three months is not enough time to reverse the legacy of 30 years of oppression. With his tight police grip, Mubarak’s regime weakened opposition parties, halted their grassroots activities and instigated internal feuds.

Civil opposition parties hold that despite its unlawful status, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to build a relatively large constituency thanks to its religious discourse, which appeals to a widely conservative society. The 2005 elections witnessed the strongest showing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which garnered 88 seats and rose as the largest opposition bloc in parliament.

Besides their plea to postpone the upcoming poll, the opposition has called for the lifting of all restrictions on party formation and the endorsement of a mixed electoral system that combines list-based and independent candidacies. Since 1990, parliamentary elections were based on individual candidacy. The opposition has always dismissed the model as detrimental to the party system and conducive to the patronage-based politics and violence instigated by tribal, familial and sectarian differences.

“This system will put an end to the might of tribalism. It will allow for a better representation of parties without discriminating against independents,” said Nasser Abdel Hamed, another representative of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, whose group seems wary of repeating the mistakes of the past.

In the 1984 and 1987 parliamentary elections, Egypt adopted a solely party-based list that prevented independents from running for parliament. Eventually, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled against this model, arguing it was discriminatory against independent candidates.

Yet for Sobhi Saleh, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and one of the architects of the constitutional amendments, a shift in the electoral system before the upcoming parliamentary elections might not help. “I do not think a list-based candidacy would be the best option in the next elections even if independents are also allowed to run,” he said.

“Ninety-seven point five percent of the Egyptian people do not belong to parties. I believe we can have strong political parties within two years and then we can implement that model… Even if we have a mixed system, independent candidates will be the winners,” concluded Saleh.

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