Uncertainty beclouds Egypt’s march to democracy

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By Hugo Odiogor, Foreign Affairs Editor, With Agency Report

While Nigerians continue to grope in the dark over how to craft a workable and governance friendly constitution, Egyptians went out yesterday to vote in a referendum to usher in a new constitution. Controversial and contentious as the vote may have seemed, the people were given the opportunity to take a look at the provisions of the proposed constitution that would govern their affairs.

This is contrary to what obtains in Nigeria where the citizen watch with taciturn as political actors  manipulate the provisions of the constitution to entrench themselves in power. Invariably, while Egyptians are seeking to have a say on how they are governed, Nigerians, on the other hand, are enslaving themselves.

Nigeria is a country of 160 million people, compared with Egypt’s 80 million people. The level of socio-economic development between both countries is incomparable. Even as the last two years have been turbulent for Egypt, it is still a functional state than what obtains in Nigeria.

Morsi’ march to dictatorship

Since November 22, 2012,when Mohammed Morsi, the scion of Muslim Brotherhood, appropriated judicial powers that sought to make him a dictator, his country has been in turmoil as liberal and secular have been up in arms against him.

No few than seven persons have lost their lives from the clashes between supporters of the president and his opponents who believe that Mursi has showed his determination to turn Egypt into an Islamic republic.

Reports from Cairo, last week, said the liberal and secular opposition groups would back a “no” vote in a referendum on the new constitution promoted by Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

Also, last  week, the army called off “unity” talks involving rival factions,thereby dealing a blow to the efforts to resolve a worsening political crisis over the referendum and rein in street protests that have turned violent.

The latest upheaval in Egypt’s transition to democracy was brought on by a decree from Morsi in which he awarded himself sweeping powers to push through the new constitution, a necessary prelude to parliamentary elections early next year.

Morsi’s move caused huge controversy, dividing the Arab world’s most populous state and bringing thousands of pro- and anti-government protesters onto the streets in the worst upheaval since the fall of Hosni Mubarak almost two years ago.

The army was called out to restore order but, so far, it has not used force to keep protesters away from the presidential palace, which is now ringed with tanks, barbed wire and concrete barricades.

Ahead of the referendum, Egyptians abroad began voting at embassies on the new basic law that Mursi fast-tracked through an Islamist-dominated drafting assembly. The start of the voting process was a setback for the opposition, which had hoped to delay the plebiscite. The absence of a boycott could help ease confrontation on the streets and give the charter more legitimacy if it passes.

The National Salvation Front (NSF) alliance of opposition parties called for citizens to vote “no” on the  referendum, and has set conditions that, if unmet, would result in a boycott of the poll.

The opposition coalition argued that the draft constitution does not reflect the aspirations of all of Egypt’s 83 million people because of provisions which could give Muslim clerics a role in shaping laws.

It wants a new charter with more safeguards for minority rights, including for the 10 percent of Egyptians who are Christian. NSF had demanded a full judicial supervision of the process, especially that  international and local NGOs be allowed to monitor the poll. The second round of voting in the referendum comes up on 22.

Although the Government and the Brotherhood have been hoping for victory for Morsi, observers and the Muslim Brotherhood is far from certain. Prominent opposition figures like former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and UN Anti Nuclear Agency, Mohammed El Baraddei are campaigning for “no” vote , which many people believe, would be a futile effort.Leftist Hamdeen Sabahy of the Popular Front said: “ The Front decided to call on the people to take part in the referendum and reject this draft constitution and vote no.

The military factor

The army’s attempt to arrange talks appears to have foundered because of suggestions it was taking on a political role. Defence Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is also head of the armed forces, said he wanted talks which would not be political in character.

Before the Army called off the proposed parley with the political actors, Amr Moussa, Mohamed ElBaradei, leftist Hamdeen Sabahy and a Wafd party leader Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour had indicated their readiness to attend.

Presidency sources said Mursi, who had been expected to attend, had decided to send the head of the ruling party instead. The army dominated Egypt throughout the post-colonial era, providing every president from its ranks until Mubarak was overthrown last year. After his election in June, Mursi shunted aside generals who had held interim power after Mubarak, and appointed a new high command.

Islamists have won parliamentary and presidential elections since the fall of Mubarak. They want the vote on the new constitution to go ahead and are confident it will pass, paving the way for them to win a new parliamentary election next year.

Mass rallies by both supporters and opponents of President Morsi had become a daily occurrence in Cairo, and clashes between the two groups killed at least seven people and injured hundreds more last week. Mursi’s supporters said the constitution is needed to continue the transition to democracy. Some deride their opponents as Mubarak-era “remnants” trying to cling to power.

The opposition said that unless the referendum is held with full supervision by the judiciary, security guarantees and local and international monitoring, it would still call for a boycott. It also wants the vote held on one day rather than two.

Leftist Hamdeen Sabahy of the Popular Front said: “The Front decided to call on the people to take part in the referendum and reject this draft constitution and vote no.

The opposition had argued that the chaotic protests and counter-protests of the last two weeks meant the referendum should be postponed. But large opposition rallies this week did not change Mursi’s mind. Egypt’s highest judicial authority, the Supreme Judicial Council, said the decree was an “unprecedented attack” on the independence of the judiciary.

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