Voters in Egypt will go to the polls on Saturday to decide on a new constitution. The ballot comes at perhaps the most politically fraught moment since the revolution in January 2011.
The proposed constitution was prepared over the past few months by a 100-member constituent assembly.
Egypt has actually had two constituent assemblies this year. The first was selected in March by the elected parliament, but it was dissolved a month later by the Cairo administrative court, which ruled it “unrepresentative” because it included too few women and representatives of minority groups.
So a second assembly was chosen in June after negotiations between lawmakers and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ruled the country at the time. Seats were set aside for representatives of various groups: the Coptic Church, Al Azhar University, journalists, military officers and others.
The second assembly has also been plagued by dozens of legal challenges. Its members were again appointed by parliament, but the parliament itself was dissolved by court order in June – so lawyers argued that the assembly, too, should be closed down.
President Mohamed Morsi’s controversial decree issued on November 22 barred the courts from dissolving the assembly, and gave it time to continue its work.
This is a simple up-or-down referendum: If a majority of voters approve of the constitution, it will go into effect.
If the constitution is rejected, then – pursuant to another decree issued by Morsi, this one on December 8 – a new assembly will be elected, by popular vote, within three months. It will have six months to draw up a new constitution, which will then face another public vote.
Pushing for a “yes” vote are the Muslim Brotherhood and several other Islamist parties, including the salafi Nour Party. This should come as little surprise: They controlled a majority of the seats in the assembly. The Brotherhood has been conducting widespread public outreach, encouraging voters to “know your constitution” – and to support it.
A few harder-line Islamist factions oppose the document, because it does not rigidly impose Islamic law. Article 2 states that “principles of shari’a [Islamic law] are the main source of legislation”, which is a nebulous formation; there are no established “principles” of shari’a. Many groups (including the Nour Party) wanted the constitution to apply “the rulings of shari’a“, or simply shari’a itself.
A diverse collection of liberal and secular groups oppose the constitution, for a variety of reasons:
Freedom of speech and religion: It gives the state wide-ranging authority to “protect ethics and morality”, which critics fear could allow the government to impose a narrow, religiously-inspired vision of “morality”. Freedom of religion is only guaranteed for Muslims, Christians and Jews, not members of minority groups like the Baha’i.
Concerns over women’s rights: The constitution does not explicitly bar discrimination on the basis of gender, and it includes a clause about the state “maintain[ing] a balance between a woman’s obligations toward the family and public work”, which activists say interferes with a woman’s private choices.
Civil-military relations: It includes a clause that allows military trials for civilians (under certain circumstances), and another which shields the army budget from oversight by the elected parliament.
If the constitution is approved, then Egypt is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections within two months. If it is rejected, then it’s back to the drawing board to draft another one.