Letter from Cairo
Cairo Journal: Egyptians get a crash course in democracy and it sure feels good
Saturday was Egypt’s first day of real democracy. We stood in half mile-long lines to vote “yay” or “nay” to a package of constitutional amendments meant to limit presidential authority and pave the way for democratic elections. It was the first time that most people had ever voted because it was the first time they didn’t know the results ahead of time.
At my polling station, judges were supervising in person and I found two of my foreign girlfriends, who are residents but not citizens, acting as monitors. I asked them how they achieved this elevated status and they told me it was easy. “We just filled out a form and showed the supervisors our passports.”
The soldiers outside were only there to prevent intimidation of voters, and pre-referendum coercion was mostly limited to the same sort of manipulation we see in the States. “God wants you to vote yes.”
To get a civilian government up and running ASAP, the army had appointed a committee of constitutional experts to propose a package of amendments to the public. On the one hand, it’s a good sign that the army doesn’t want to rule the county. On the other hand, it would have been nice to allow the new political currents more time to get organized ahead of elections.
A revolution is not a political platform. Those take time. Instead we’re getting a crash course in democracy and “que sera, sera” will have to be good enough for now.
Egypt’s last constitution was written in 1971 to give President Anwar Sadat pharaonic control over the country. His successor, Hasni Mubarak amended it over the years to institutionalize some of his more insidious control mechanisms. Judicial oversight of elections was eliminated, the barriers to forming parties and NGOs were insurmountable, and a permanent state of emergency basically destroyed all civil liberties.
One of first demands of the revolution was to scrap that constitution. The army, cutting corners, decided to clean up the most flagrant bits and have someone else fix the rest later on.
Those of us who voted “nay” wanted a more thorough transition. Why tinker with minor amendments when we can start right now with a brand new constitution? Especially given that if the amendments were to pass, parliamentary elections would be held in June, followed by a presidential election later in the summer. This leaves very little time for new parties to mobilize support, and gives a greater advantage to the Muslim Brotherhood and the former ruling party – both of which are relatively well organized.
Those of us who voted “nay” were also OK with extending the transitional period. We didn’t want to rush into a rapid series of elections before creating a cohesive political environment, one that truly represents the new lay of the land.
It turns out that most Egyptians were fine with the quick fix. After a very respectable voter turnout, the yay’s won the day. Satisfied to see some concrete changes they were ready to move quickly to a civilian government.
Here’s a summary of the amendments in a very tiny nutshell:
- The presidential term was reduced from six to four years, with a two-term limit (Mubarak ruled for 30 years and was probably going to “run” for a 6th term)
- The pool of eligible presidential candidates was significantly expanded (Mubarak had managed to define the requirements so that only his son was eligible)
- Judicial supervision of elections was fully restored (the ruling party didn’t want anyone around who could contest the results they paid good money for)
- The president’s ability to declare and renew a state of emergency was restricted (although it’s still in effect and not clear when it will be suspended)
- A new constitution is to be written (the next parliament will have the authority to form a general assembly for writing an entirely new constitution - we trust they will do so)
The patched-up constitution we got will have to see us through the next six months or so. After that we will come together again to vote for a new constitution, hopefully one that will give us all a fighting chance regardless of our color, creed, or sexual orientation.
I can just hear the Muslim Brotherhood say, “Fat chance!”
Native Houstonian Victoria Harper is a Cairo-based consultant and writer. Read her previous letters from Cairo: