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Egypt's referendum a path to democracy?
Saturday January 25, 2014 3:05 PM, Rajeev Agarwal, IANS

"Despite a milieu of intense social upheaval and acts of terrorism and sabotage that sought to derail the process, Egyptians have now marked yet another defining moment in our roadmap to democracy. The outcome represents nothing less than the dawning of a new Egypt," said presidential spokesperson Ehab Badawy while praising the passing of referendum on Egypt's constitution on Jan 14-15.

The referendum was passed with an overwhelming 98 percent majority. The support for the constitution was seen as vital to the political plan put in place by the military-backed interim government in its declared path towards Egypt's democratic transition.

The boycott by the Islamists, low turnout of youth and the lower than expected turnout may have been a dampener, but the 38.6 percent voting was still a marked improvement from the 32.8 percent in the December 2012 constitutional referendum. While the referendum now paves the way to continue with the process of parliamentary and presidential elections, it raises concerns over Egypt's political future. Will it finally lead Egypt on the path to democracy or does it run the danger of the return of Mubarak-like military dictators? Also, the question whether the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 will succeed hangs in the balance.

The 2013 Constitution
The 2013 constitution was drafted by a 50-member panel dominated by secular figures and appointed by the interim president. It limits the scope of Islamic law in the country's legislation and does away with the controversial Islamic clauses of the previous version which threatened minority, secular and civil society voices. Key alterations from the previous version comprise limiting the role of religion in legislation, increased authority of the country's military, a liberal system of governance, as well as the rights and freedoms of all citizens. The new version however retains Article 2, which says the "principles" of Shariah are the basis for legislation, a common phrase in all Egyptian constitutions since the 1970s. The reference to Al Azhar University in overseeing implementation and interpretation of Islamic laws has however been expunged.

The new preamble states Egypt is a "modern democratic state with a civilian government", a clear departure from being Islamist as the 2012 regime or the military regime of the Mubarak era. The new constitution bans political parties based on religion, gives women equal rights and protects the status of minority Christians. It also gives the military special status by allowing it to select its own candidates for the job of defence minister for the next eight years and empowering it to bring civilians before military tribunals in certain cases. The increased powers to the military and the possibility that the army chief, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, could run for presidential elections and win it, however, question the mention of democratic and civilian rule in the preamble.

The Road Ahead
The constitutional referendum has cleared the path for the parliamentary and presidential elections. Going by the overwhelming support, it is likely that General Sisi may announce the presidential elections first. He is most likely to contest and, going by the lack of credible opposition and present trends, win too. The Muslim Brotherhood has called the referendum a "farce" but realises that Egypt is now moving beyond the Mohammed Morsi era.

Though banned, it is not likely that the Muslim Brotherhood would give up. It remains significant as a social and political force with a huge following at the grassroot level owing to its social work over the decades. Since its founding, the Muslim Brotherhood has undergone several phases of being legal and illegal. It might be forced to go underground for some time, but is likely to continue the struggle and make things difficult for the future governments. It has to now wait for the next government to make mistakes and the time when disenchanted people would again take to the streets.

In the governing of countries, the text of the constitution is less important than the spirit of its interpretation and implementation. The future governments of Egypt will face the challenge of implementing the new constitution keeping in mind changing times and people's rising aspirations. The people too would have to be patient. Things cannot change overnight. In a traditional Arab society, mere articles of a constitution cannot ensure and guarantee women's rights or the protection of the minorities. With correct intent from the government, constitutional articles may be implemented as the society adapts and evolves.

The new constitution, with a military-heavy content, however, bears the fear that the principal issues that led to the uprising in 2011 - dictatorship, police brutality, fear of deep state, a failing economy dominated by the cronies of those in power - could return in similar form as in the Mubarak era. If that happens, the people might again take to the streets, plunging Egypt into another round of crisis and turmoil.

Egypt is too important a country in the Middle East to be ignored. The region and the world watches as it prepares to take its next step. The US State Department has already said that Congress is expected to pass a bill permitting the White House to unfreeze $1.5 billion in US aid if it can certify Egypt "has held a constitutional referendum and is taking steps to support a democratic transition".

The coming months will tell whether Egypt has embarked on its path towards democracy or it is a return of the dark times akin to the Mubarak era.

(Col. Rajeev Agarwal is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

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