Top Ten Threats to the Legitimacy of Egypt’s new Constitution

Early returns from the Egyptian provinces that voted in a two-stage referendum on Saturday suggest that the draft constitution garnered some 56% of the vote. It was rejected in the capital, Cairo, and in the Delta province of Gharbiya, but won in the 8 other provinces where voting took place on Saturday, including Alexandria and the two populous Delta provinces of Sharqiya and Daqahliya. These latter two are a surprise, since they were taken by Ahmad Shafiq, the secular old-regime candidate, in the June presidential run-off. The constitution was largely produced by the Muslim Brotherhood, out of which the president, Muhammad Morsi, comes. So a vote for the constitution was a vote of confidence in the president, though many less politicized voters may have just wanted stability. Still, that Morsi only got 45% of the voter in Sharqiya in June, but pulled off 66% in favor of his constitution now, is such a large discrepancy that The Brotherhood’s critics are sure to suspect fraud. Likewise, Morsi got 44% in Daqahliya in June but his constitution just passed there by 55%!

Although Morsi got his constitution, he won’t very likely have gotten the stability Egypt desperately needs for its economy to progress. The most recent analogous constitutional process, that of Iraq in 2005, was equally as contentious, and was opposed by even fewer Iraqis than opposed the Egyptian one. But the Sunni Arabs rejected it, and its passage arguably threw the country into civil war and long-term turmoil. Dr. Morsi likely will find that some victories haunt one.

Here are the things wrong with the way this constitution was passed:

1. The drafting committee or “Constituent Assembly” that produced this draft was not representative. It was dominated by Muslim Brothers and their supporters. After the courts ruled that members of parliament could not serve on it, some nevertheless did. It had no women on it. Some 22 members drawn from liberal, leftist, Christian and centrist currents had resigned in protest before this draft was suddenly completed on November 30.

2. Leftists, liberals and Muslim centrists launched large demonstrations against the way the constitution-drafting was hijacked by the religious Right and demanding that a more representative process be instituted. A constitution should be a consensual document. This one is not.

3. Substantial numbers of Egyptians felt that they did not have time properly to study and debate this constitution.

4. The rules needed for observers to function properly were not issued in time, so that the Carter Center and other international organizations declined to send observers. The probity of the referendum is in doubt.

5. Most Egyptian judges went on strike and most refused to supervise the ballot boxes. Professors and others from outside the judiciary were called on to supervise. This step is illegal in Egyptian law. It is suspected that many of the impromptu ballot committees were drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood and so were biased. There are some reports that at a few polling stations, no one was in charge. The security and legitimacy of the ballot boxes cannot therefore be certified.

6. Many voters had to stand in line for an unreasonable 3 or 4 hours to vote because of inadequate staffing of polling stations.

7. The text of the constitution is not actually complete. Many paragraphs require further legislation by a future elected parliament. Under these circumstances, in some instances people could not even know what they were voting for.

8. Security was not sufficient for a referendum to international standards. In the two weeks leading up to the vote, there were violent clashes in the streets in several areas of the country. HQs of the Muslim Brotherhood and its civil party wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, were burned. Leftists and liberals were attacked and in some instances kidnapped and tortured. On Saturday night, the offices of the liberal Wafd Party and its newspaper were attacked by by hard line Salafi fundamentalists. Many Coptic Christians belong to the Wafd, and the party opposes the constitution. One reason for the low turnout may have been a certain amount of apprehension on the part of voters about their safety.

9. There are plausible reports of continued campaigning at polling stations and of intimidation of non-Brotherhood voters,

10. 56% is not a sufficient margin for the successful passage of a central organic law for a society. You could not at the moment even pass a statute in the US senate by that margin. If Morsi and the Brotherhood were wise, they would recognize that they have polarized the country and would hold elections for a new constituent assembly.

Hoda Abdul Hamid reports for Aljazeera English:

Still, although this process has been deeply flawed, the politicking around the constitution has been vigorous, and an elected president did submit the document to the people for a vote. If people decide that the referendum was irregular or even stolen, however, it won’t be greeted as a victory for democracy. If future elected Egyptian parliaments don’t like some provision in it, they can amend it. The Brotherhood is playing rough, but they still seem committed to the democratic process in the sense of submitting to further elections.

New parliamentary elections will now likely be held in late February. Leftists, liberals and centrists could do very well in them if they campaign vigorously and learn how to walk neighborhoods.

The dark cloud on the horizon is that the Brotherhood seems committed to a tyranny of the majority and is unwilling to compromise. If they keep playing Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, they risk getting his problems.

9 Responses

  1. I am reminded of the compromises in the US constitution, which still haunt the USA. Still, the biggest group afflicted by this document is surely women. It is hard to imagine a violent civil war between the sexes. And yet…

    Also, of course the Coptic Christians, who are a substantial minority. Hard to imagine that group turning feminist. And yet…

  2. You seem to have managed to sum the main arguments of Egyptian seculars and liberals, but do allow to follow up on a number of points.

    1. The specific composition and precise dominance Islamists had in the constituent assembly remains vague, and is mysteriously often avoided being mentioned.
    The liberals, leftists, Christians and centrists who did withdraw near the end (i.e. not all of them did) had participated until then in making the constitution, and as far as can be seen their contribution remains included.
    Hence I do not believe one can call it the “Brotherhood’s” constitution.

    5. That people from outside the judiciary participated in the supervision of the referendum remains an unfounded claim. And as far as I heard it has been denied by the judiciary (said they had 4000 judges on reserve). Here’s the judge in charge answering to such claims link to

    8. And one really should make sure about these attacks, who they are (often off-handedly) attributed to, and how genuine they are. Those accused Salafis have officially denied being involved in Saturday’s attacks.
    Now it is being said the Wafd itself was involved (see link to
    Point is, off-hand claims are easy to make, and in this politically charged climate one has to confirm.

    10. That remains a subjective matter doesn’t it? Didn’t France’s 1946 constitution pass with a 53% margin?

  3. In comparison to the territories that voted just now, how conservative or liberal are the regions that will be voting in the second round? Will be interesting to see which way the vote moves toward as the second round is factored in. Depending on what the final margin ends up being, some of the articles might be subject to amendment in an effort to make the document more broadly appealing/functional.

    • Most of the provinces yet to vote with the possible exception of Qalyubiya will almost certainly vote for the constitution.

  4. I noticed that the voting habits of specific governorates do not necessarily follow a pattern from parliamentary election to presidential election to constitutional referendum. In Alexandria, for example, Hamdeen Sabbahi did very well despite it being a stronghold of the FJP and al Nour. Aswan seems to have been more strongly in favor of the constitution than the presidential results would have suggested as well. Cairo, though, does seem more consistent.

    I suspect that many of the voters do not care about the culture war aspects as much as media often portrays. They may be looking for whoever the believe can provide the best chance for economic improvement/recovery. This would explain why some of the less developed areas often appear to shift their votes. It could also be why Sabbahi picked up so much steam regardless of the manner in which international media said little about him until late in the race (polls were deeply flawed as well).

  5. “Although Morsi got his constitution, he won’t very likely have gotten the stability Egypt desperately needs for its economy to progress”

    but the opposition which is a pure marriage of convenience can?.

    I saw a Youtube-Clip in which a Moderator of ONTVEG(which is owned by the Copt and former best friend of Mubarak) ordering the President to step down. I never saw someone in the western Media in my entire life doing the same. Not even John Stewart ordered Bush to step down after 8 Years and a horrible record. Has the american Opposition or Occupy Wall-street ever burned down the Headquarters of the Republicans or Democrats?. And if it would had, then at least it would be reported in the Media. The entire Media in egypt is owned by corrupt Ex Mubarak cronies. Media outlets have become parties. They invite Opposition figures as if they have democratic legitimacy. Is Democracy meant do be the rule of the mob?. If it`s the case then say good buy to egypt. I can still remember how Sharef Abdel Kouddous argued after the parliamentary election argued that somehow election are just a part of democracy. And that the street is somehow just as important. What bullshit is that. If the artificial opposition win the next election then brace yourself for another round of violence and mayhem. Storming of the presidential palace. dissolving of Parliament and Street-fights all over egypt. I want to add that al Ahram is not a national newspaper but a political body and think tank.

    This is my personal opinion

    • The US Bill of Rights permits peaceable assembly for protest precisely because the inventors of modern democracy in the 18th century recognized that it is in fact part of the democratic process. The Civil Rights movement got the Voting Rights Act passed by sit-ins; Congress was coerced into it, not leading the charge for it.

      • “The US Bill of Rights permits peaceable assembly for protest precisely because the inventors of modern democracy in the 18th century recognized that it is in fact part of the democratic process.”

        Burning 28 offices of the MB has nothing to do with peaceable protest. And killing 10 Members of the MB Youth either. And storming the presidential palace either. The killings were not reported by the Al Ahram Newspaper. Unlike the Nasserist Reporter that is killed while covering a pro Mursi demonstration.

  6. Professor Cole:
    If you haven’t already done so, could you please comment on the following? Please briefly compare the treatment of or reliance on (i) Islam, (ii) the Koran and/or (iii) Shariah law, (however defined), in the proposed Egyptian constitution and the constitutions or similar founding documents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Thank you,
    A fan in Chicago.

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