The draft of a new Egyptian Constitution, which according to the national electoral commission was approved by 98 per cent of those who voted in the January 14-15 referendum, is more problematic than it seems to be at first sight. For the record, the turnout of 38.6 per cent, in a total electorate of 53 million, was higher than the 33 per cent in the referendum held by the elected and now overthrown President Mohamed Morsy. The head of the Supreme Electoral Commission,Nabil Salib, hailed the result as an “unrivalled success” with an “unprecedented turnout”, but the participation rate was lower than the 41.6 per cent recorded for a similar referendum after the uprising which removed the dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. The draft gives the President up to two four-year terms, and grants the national Parliament powers to impeach the head of state. It also guarantees equality between men and women, and says the state will be bound by international human rights treaties which Egypt has ratified. Furthermore, it bans the closure of media bodies and replaces administrative court removals of programmes or individuals with criminal procedures, and in effect ends prison sentences for press and other public-expression offences. Significantly, artists, writers, and filmmakers will no longer be liable to lawsuits by individuals who find their work irksome.
While such measures have been welcomed, the draft leaves crucial areas under-defined. It gives absolute freedom of religion and bans political parties based on “religion, race, gender or geography” — but the latter may serve to exclude the Freedom and Justice Party, which has close links to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Secondly, the military will appoint the Defence Minister for the next eight years; that shows the reluctance of the military, which forms the current interim government, to relinquish control. Such nervousness is underlined by the wider context of the referendum; 160,000 soldiers and 200,000 police personnel were deployed during the vote, and turnout was far higher in northern than in southern Egypt, where the Brotherhood’s support is the strongest. The new document even keeps Mr. Morsy’s clause giving the government legal powers regulating the right to strike; the trade unions have strongly criticised this. In addition, the overall current evidence is not encouraging. For example, on March 24 a court sentenced 529 Morsy supporters to death for killing a police officer in August 2013, after the coup which deposed Mr. Morsy, but 382 of the accused were tried in absentia, and the defence arguments were not heard. The verdicts will be appealed. In sum, the draft Constitution leaves far too much to executive and legislative discretion.