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What is at stake in Egypt's referendum

By Gary Gambill - posted Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Last month, an extraordinarily popular uprising against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was interrupted by a turn of events that is not uncommon when aging autocrats outlive their capacity to protect deeply vested interests - a bloodless seizure of power by generals promising a transition to democracy. Though the Supreme Military Council (SMC) appears committed to transferring power to a newly elected civilian government, its transition plan is designed to forestall the kind of systemic political reform needed to sustain democracy in Egypt. The constitutional referendum this weekend may well determine if it succeeds.

While the Egyptian military is widely respected by the public (owing to familiarity born of universal conscription and the fact that soldiers haven't been used to police the population), it is anything but a neutral arbiter in the struggle for political power. Its extensive penetration of the state's civilian organs (every president of Egypt and most regional governors have come from its ranks), institutional autonomy, and accumulation of vast, untaxed commercial enterprises make it by far the most powerful and united stakeholder of the ancien regime (evident in the ease with which it brushed Mubarak aside).

The military's privileged status is symbiotically linked to the "super-presidential" political system laid down by Egypt's 1971 constitution, which grants the president a host of extraordinary powers (unilaterally dismissing the prime minister, dissolving parliament, imposing emergency law, etc.), without strong legislative and judicial checks. Under this system, the military needs only the cooperation of this one civilian officeholder to rule from the shadows. While most who played leading roles in the "January 25 Revolution" believe that the constitutional powers of the presidency must be drastically scaled back or abolished altogether in favor of a parliamentary system, the transition process mandated by the SMC is structured to preserve them.


The council's six-month deadline for holding legislative and presidential elections works to the advantage of incumbents and others who have the financial resources and organizational capacities to quickly mount effective campaigns - mainly the remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood. Although a committee of prominent jurists handpicked by the SMC has drafted a series of constitutional amendments - set to go to referendum on Saturday - that will demonstrably enhance the integrity and transparency of the electoral process (in particular by restoring judicial supervision of elections and reducing restrictions on who can run for president), it is quite possible that political newcomers who spearheaded the demonstrations in Tahrir Square will be all but shut out of parliament (particularly if the country's winner-take-all electoral system remains in effect).

Conspicuously ignoring the consensus of legal experts that a new constitution should be written by a constituent assembly elected for this sole purpose (which eliminates the inherent conflict of interest in rulers of government choosing the rules of government), the SMC has assigned this task to the very parliament it is rushing to instate. It apparently anticipates that the principal beneficiaries of quick elections will oppose a major constitutional overhaul (NDP business elites can be bought off, while Islamists favor a strong presidency so long as they are allowed to freely compete for it), and there is widespread suspicion among pro-democracy activists that it reached a prior understanding with the Muslim Brotherhood to this effect. No matter who wins the presidency, the next occupant will have a clear interest in preserving the prerogatives of his office, a large bloc of parliamentary supporters, and considerable incentives to appease the military.

In hopes of forcing the SMC to abandon its transition plan, most leaders of the January 25 uprising have urged the Egyptian public to vote against the interim constitutional amendments (without which elections cannot proceed), while the Muslim Brotherhood and what's left of the NDP are mobilizing their supporters to vote in favor.

Much hangs in the balance. Although accelerated elections would still be the most transparent in Egyptian history and some improvement in constitutional provisions for political and civil rights is inevitable at this point, an SMC victory in the referendum will probably rule out sweeping structural changes to Egypt's system of government. In countries with a long legacy of authoritarian rule, presidential systems nearly always fail to provide for successful transitions to democracy. While former Soviet bloc countries that chose parliamentary systems after the fall of communism have overwhelmingly remained democratic, those with presidential systems (e.g. Russia, Ukraine) have regressed into tyranny. Without a constitution far better suited to escaping its authoritarian past, Egypt will have a very uphill struggle for democracy.

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This article was first published in The Jurist (University of Pittsburgh Law School) on March 19, 2011.

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About the Author

Gary C Gambill is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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