Egyptians to vote in first post-Mubarak test

2011-03-17 10:59

Cairo – Egyptians go to the polls on Saturday to give their verdict on the military’s plans for a rapid transition from the 30-year authoritarian rule of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

Just five weeks after the veteran strongman quit in the face of nationwide protests, voters will be asked to say yes or no to a package of constitutional changes intended to guide the Arab world’s most populous nation through fresh parliamentary and presidential elections.

An appointed panel of experts drew up the proposed amendments in just 10 days, as the military council which took over on Mubarak’s resignation strove to restore civilian rule as quickly as possible and keep the army above the political fray.

But the hasty, improvised nature of the proposed constitutional underpinnings of Egypt’s promised new democracy has driven many of the leading groups and figures behind the victorious protest movement to urge a “no” vote.

Most of the amendments are by themselves uncontroversial, although critics argue that they do not go nearly far enough in overhauling the Mubarak-era charter, which they say needs to be completely rewritten.

The president would serve a maximum of two four-terms and would no longer have the power to refer civilians to the military courts.

The state of emergency which has governed Egyptian life for decades could only be imposed for six months without endorsement in a popular referendum.

Restrictions on who can stand for president would be eased, if not entirely relaxed, and judicial supervision of all elections would be restored.

The head of the judicial commission overseeing the referendum, Mohammed Atteya, hailed it as among “the first fruits of the revolution” which overthrew Mubarak’s regime at the cost of at least 384 lives.

“This is the first time in Egyptian history voters would be participating in a political process that is both credible and transparent,” he said.

“It is a principal step in the process of democratic transformation to a modern and civil state and the transfer of constitutional powers to a civilian authority elected by the people.”

But two declared candidates for the post of president – Arab League secretary-general Amr Mussa and former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei – have both called for the vote to be postponed or scrapped.

“Rejecting the constitutional amendments is the right decision for the voters heading to polling stations,” Mussa said yesterday.

The changes “do not meet the ambitions of the Egyptian people who dream of a new democratic era,” he added.

ElBaradei said the country needed a constitutional assembly to write up a new democratic charter and at least a year to prepare for truly free elections.

“If we adopt these amendments, it would mean holding legislative polls within two months, and 80% of Egyptians, or the silent majority, won’t have the chance to participate in a real parliamentary election,” he said.

The young militants who spearheaded the 18 days of demonstrations that led to Mubarak’s ouster have also called for a “no” vote.

Only the powerful Muslim Brotherhood – outlawed but generally tolerated under Mubarak – and elements of his former ruling National Democratic Party have called for a “yes” vote.

Critics say they are the ones who stand to benefit if elections are held too quickly without giving new parties time to organise.

Organisers of the referendum have made clear that rejection of the proposed amendments will leave the military no choice but to decide the constitutional arrangements for new elections by decree, leaving many voters in a quandary.

“Most Egyptians are still undecided about the referendum,” wrote columnist Emadeddin Hussein in the independent Al-Shuruq newspaper.

“A ’yes’ vote would shorten the political transition but at the risk of seeing the partisans of the old regime return to the scene. A ’no’ vote would extend the transition at the risk of having no clarity about the future.” 

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