Egypt opposition voices constitution concerns

From liberals to salafis, opposition groups are worried an upcoming referendum could weaken their political clout.

Egyptian authorities are nervous about low voter turnout for the January referendum [Reuters]

Cairo, Egypt – The founder of a liberal party worries that Egypt’s new constitution could make his bloc irrelevant in next year’s parliamentary elections. His ideological opposite, a conservative salafi, fears it might mean a ban from politics.

They have other complaints as well, about articles on military trials for civilians and the status of religion in public life. Ideology aside, though, both men have a pragmatic reason to oppose the charter: A last-minute compromise on its wording could breathe new life into former President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), at the expense of opposition parties that formed since the 2011 revolution.

Paradoxically, both men are among the charter’s most vocal supporters.

The public will have the final say in a January referendum. Authorities are clearly nervous about whether election-weary voters will turn out; after all, this will be Egypt’s seventh nationwide vote since the revolution. Advertisements along the highways and on television urge people to participate. In one city, copies of the charter were included in bags of government-subsidised bread.

Several groups are planning a boycott, most notably supporters of President Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed by the army in July.

Still, there is little doubt about the eventual outcome: Never in Egypt’s modern history have voters said “no” to a referendum, and this one is unlikely to buck the trend, because not a single influential political faction is urging a “no” vote.

Both men want to keep their parties in favour with the interim government, and in Egypt’s increasingly constrained political space, that means supporting a charter they describe as fundamentally flawed.

“They don’t really have a choice,” said HA Hellyer, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the Brookings Institution. “In an ideal world, they might be pushing a no vote, or a boycott… [but] if they did support a boycott, they’d be put in with the Brotherhood, labelled as a ‘fifth column.'”

‘We don’t have many sheikhs’

The liberal supporter is Mohamed Aboul Ghar, a doctor who went on to found the Social Democratic Party. Often criticised as an “elite” grouping with little popular support, it won just sixteen of 498 seats in the 2011 parliamentary election.

Aboul Ghar hopes to change that next year. The Social Democrats have aligned closely with the army since the coup; the interim prime minister and one of his deputies both came from their ranks. Other prominent members, including Aboul Ghar, endorsed a crackdown on the Brotherhood which has left thousands dead.

The blend of liberal economic policies and conservative nationalism, Aboul Ghar hopes, will expand his party’s appeal. “People will vote for ideas, people will vote for social democracy,” he said earlier this month.

But the new constitution, which Aboul Ghar helped to write, might actually discourage people from “voting for ideas”, by reinstating an electoral system used under Mubarak’s. Candidates might run as individuals, instead on party lists, a system which allowed the old regime monopolise power through tribal and financial connections.

The NDP is officially banned, but many of its candidates could run as independents. “We don’t have many sheikhs or omdas,” Aboul Ghar admitted, referring to the local notables who made up the NDP’s rural power base.

The issue threatened to hold up voting on the final draft of the constitution. So the 50-member drafting committee punted, leaving the decision to interim president Adly Mansour. One of his advisers, Ali Awad, said last week that the president had not yet made a decision, but government sources say he is under pressure to contest at least a majority of seats under the individual system.

“There is a strong feeling that the government, the current president, they want to… create a very weak parliament,” Aboul Ghar said. “My feeling is that they don’t want strong parties, they don’t want strong opposition, they want to ruin the parties and make them weaker.”

Mansour’s decision only applies to next year’s election; parliament will then draft a permanent electoral law. But it is unlikely that lawmakers elected as individuals will turn around and re-empower parties.

“We don’t think more than 30 percent of seats will run on lists,” said Hussein Gohar, another senior member of the Social Democrats. “It will be a big blow to parties… if candidates run as individuals, it won’t matter whether you’re the Muslim Brotherhood or the Social Democrats, you will be elected based on family connections, tribal connections.”

‘You can abuse the article’

Across the political spectrum is the salafi Nour Party, which won more than 20 percent of the seats in the last parliament. It is the second-largest Islamist bloc in Egypt, behind only the Brotherhood’s party, now in disarray after most of its top leadership was arrested.

Like the Social Democrats, Nour could also find itself marginalised. “It is very bad for a country like Egypt to talk again about the individual electoral system,” said Nader Bakkar, a co-founder of the Nour party. “It will create space again for money to have power in politics… if you want a healthy political environment, you have to encourage political parties.”

It could face a more existential crisis: Article 74 of the constitution prohibits parties formed “on a religious basis,” similar to a ban during Mubarak’s era.

Party leaders insist that their charter is not explicitly religious, but their rhetoric during the 2011 election nonetheless opens the door to legal challenges. “The parties did take steps to avoid language that would blatantly contradict the ban, but still tried to communicate a religious message,” said Nathan Brown, an expert on Egyptian constitutional law at George Washington University. “It will be up to a court, or maybe many courts.”

For now, at least, Nour might receive favourable treatment from Egypt’s deeply politicised judicial system. The party supported Morsi’s ouster, and has positioned itself as the interim government’s preferred Islamist interlocutors.

“You can abuse the article against us… if you just want to ban Nour, okay, we can formulate another party in one week,” said Bakkar. “[But] if you want to ban the members, the grassroots, if you want to do political exclusion, then this is another story.”

Yet despite those fears, Nour endorsed the constitution just days after it was completed. Last week, the party held a public rally in Alexandria urging supporters to vote yes. “They’ve basically decided that if they don’t have a seat at the table, then they’re likely to be served for dinner,” Hellyer said.

Bakkar said it would be irresponsible to do otherwise. The interim government has framed the referendum as a vote for stability; Bakkar went further, saying that to oppose the charter would mean “a failed state, a collapsed state.”

“Unfortunately at this point, a thing like a constitution, now it’s a matter of life or death for all the Egyptian people,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera