Despite Judges Boycott, Egypt Votes on New Constitution

Egyptians vote in the first round of a constitutional referendum.

Roughly half of Egypt’s population was eligible to cast their vote in a constitutional referendum on Saturday. Soldiers joined police forces outside polling stations after protests turned deadly last week. Opposition groups accuse the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi of consolidating power and claim that the new constitution doesn’t respect the wishes of the Arab nation’s political and religious minorities.

The vote has been split into two rounds due to a shortage of judges to oversee the procedures, most of whom joined to boycott the referendum. A second round is scheduled for next week.

Leftist and liberal Egyptians as well as Christians, who compromise about 10 percent of the population, have campaigned against the referendum because they believe the draft constitution doesn’t reflect the country’s diversity. Christian and secular members stepped down from the panel that was tasked with rewriting the Constitution. The original document stems from Egypt’s military dictatorship era.

Earlier this month, Morsi gave the constitutional panel two more months to complete its work when he simultaneously issued a decree that shielded him and the upper chamber of parliament from legal challenges. The latter move angered the opposition and brought protests back to the streets of Cairo, the capital. Several days later, the president abruptly changed strategy and called for a referendum on the new law instead, written by members of his own Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing commands a plurality of the seats in both chambers of parliament and a majority in coalition with other Islamists. New elections are expected to be called in February of next year as the nation’s highest court has ruled a third of the elections that took place after last year’s revolution illegitimate. Morsi assumed the presidency in June after a runoff election in which he secured nearly 52 percent of the votes.

The military, which forced Morsi’s predecessor Hosni Mubarak out of office last year and governed the country on an interim basis until the former was elected, doesn’t seem inclined to intervene in the political battle. It didn’t withdraw its representatives from the Constitutional Assembly when other secular members left. Nor did it protest when Morsi retired dozens of officers, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and General Sami Hafez Enan, the army’s chief of staff, in August.

In the draft constitution, the army retains control of its budget and foreign policy which suggests that it has reached an understanding with the Muslim Brotherhood about the future division of power in Egypt. That, or the generals are biding time while Egypt descends into deeper economic and political turmoil under the stewardship of an organization that challenges the very composition of the Egyptian state as it has existed since Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed the presidency in 1956.