A mere month after their veteran President Hosni Mubarak was removed from office, Egyptians head to the polls this weekend to vote on a number of constitutional amendments proposed by the interim military government. Observers wonder whether the country, long accustomed to authoritarian rule, is ready for such an experiment in democracy.
Some forty million Egyptians, roughly half of the population, are eligible to participate in a constitutional referendum on Saturday.
One of the amendments under review would limit executive power which hugely expanded during Mubarak’s reign. There would also be an eight year presidential term limit and legislative and electoral checks on attempts to declare prolonged periods of emergency rule.
The generals who were anointed to shepherd Egypt’s transition to democracy dissolved parliament and suspended the country’s old constitution after Mubarak resigned. They have struggled in power since, prone to deploying force against lingering protests and ruling by decree.
While the proposed amendments would seem to meet the demands of protesters, the outcome of the referendum is in doubt. Critics are afraid that the rush to balloting might actually hamper the political transformation as fraud and intimidation have always characterized Egyptian elections. They fear that security could not be up to the task of warding off attacks by members of the former regime.
Other opposition members are disappointed that the eight amendments have to be voted up or down in a bloc. They call for a “no” vote to signal that the old constitution should be scrapped altogether.
Two possible future contenders for the Egyptian presidency have recommended people to veto the amendments — Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Amr Moussa who used to be Egypt’s foreign minister and now chairs the Arab League. The liberal Wafd Party has also proposed a boycott.
Currently the two most powerful political factions in Egypt — the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s National Democratic Party — urge a “yes” vote. They also support parliamentary elections to take place in June, followed by presidential elections in August.
Aside from the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, opposition parties are scarcely organized. Among secular Egyptians, there is discussion between leftists and liberals over whether to establish two separate parties which they fear might dilute the secular vote.
The Muslim Brotherhood is keen on early elections because it expects to do well but there have been signs of discord along generational lines with youngsters who actually marched in Cairo to oust Mubarak demanding a greater voice.