Egypt Accepts Islamist Charter, Opposition Seeks Unity

Opposition groups move toward forming one political party after losing the referendum.

An Egyptian protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, June 8
An Egyptian protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, June 8 (Sabry Khaled)

A majority of Egyptians has approved the nation’s new constitution, according to unofficial polling results confirmed by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, which urged a “yes” vote, and opposition parties that wished to reject it.

Of the seventeen governorates in which Egyptians voted in the second round of a constitutional referendum on Saturday, only Monufia voted it down. In the first round last week, a majority of voters in the Cairo and Gharbia Governorates, situated in the northern Nile Valley of the country, rejected the new charter. Nationwide, more than ten million Egyptians, nearly 64 percent of voters, approved the Constitution.

The vote was split into two rounds due to a shortage of judges to oversee the procedures, most of whom joined to boycott the referendum. Like many Christian and liberal Egyptians, they felt that the rewritten constitution emphasized Egypt’s Islamic traditions too strongly and did not provide adequate protections for the rights of religious minorities and women.

After Christian and secular members had stepped down from the panel that was tasked with rewriting the charter, President Mohamed Morsi earlier this month initially gave the committee two more months to complete its work while he simultaneously issued a decree in which he shielded himself and the upper house of parliament from legal challenges. That move brought protests back to the streets of Cairo, the capital, prompting Morsi, who was elected for the Muslim Brotherhood but formally resigned from its political wing when he assumed office in June, to abruptly change strategy and call a referendum on a hastily rewritten constitution instead.

While freedom of religion is guaranteed in the new document, it also says that any insult to the Prophet Muhammad must be punished. It refers to “the principles of Islamic law” as the main source of legislation and tasks scholars from the Al Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious in the Islamic world, with interpreting sharia rather than members of parliament or the courts. Yet another clause defines those very principles in rigid doctrinal terms.

The army retains its privileged position under the new law. It prescribes that the defense minister must be a serving officer. The military controls its own budget and maintains a right to arrest and try citizens. Unlike other secular groups, the military did not withdraw its representatives from the constitutional panel so had a hand in rewriting the charter — which suggests that it has reached an understanding with the Muslim Brotherhood about the future division of power in Egypt.

With the new constitution in place, the country is likely to organize parliamentary elections early next year, necessitated by the invalidation of a third of the elections that took place after last year’s overthrow of the dictatorship.

Islamist parties were the greatest beneficiaries of the collapse of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The Muslim Brotherhood won a plurality of the seats in both chambers of parliament in the first free elections in more than half a century. In coalition with other Islamists, it commands a comfortable majority in the legislature.

Opposition groups, taking heart from a low turnout of about 30 percent, pledged to keep up pressure on the Islamists. The National Salvation Front, which includes liberal, Nasserist and socialist parties and is coordinated by former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, announced that it would move toward forming a single political party to more effectively challenge the Muslim Brotherhood at the ballot box.