Between a rock and a hard place

With the constitutional referendum approaching, many non-Islamist parties that supported the military’s ouster of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi are still scrambling to define their positions on the charter.

While supporting Morsi’s ouster was a relatively easy decision for groups who felt this was their only means of resistance against the Brothers’ political domination, endorsing the ensuing military-sponsored roadmap is proving to be a bumpier process. 

Many of the nascent post-January 25 parties that attracted young revolutionaries have several qualms about the draft constitution, but the charter also paves the road to a tighter alignment with the military institution, sanctioning most of its actions.

While the draft includes some improvements regarding rights and state responsibilities, it also preserves a contentious article allowing for the referral of civilians to military courts, which became a revolutionary cause in the aftermath of former President Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power in February 2011. The draft is also criticized for giving state institutions too many powers, most notably the military, which has to approve the appointment of the minister of defense even though this position falls under the executive branch of government.

Endorsing the constitution would translate into continued support of the military in its post-Brotherhood rule roadmap, including its security approach, a controversial manifestation of which was the recently passed Protest Law that has already been used to prosecute renowned activists.

The revolutionary figures in non-Islamist parties are thus uneasy with what is believed to be a natural extension of their earlier support of the Armed Forces when they removed Morsi from office on July 3.

The liberal Dostour Party has decided not to take a specific stance on the constitution, opening the space for its members to vote “yes” or “no.”

Party leader Moataz Sharqawy says that a poll among party members revealed a dramatic divide. Some members supported a “yes” vote, others voted “no” and many others said they would boycott the referendum altogether.

Sharqawy believes that a generational gap within the party explains the different attitudes towards the draft constitution. About 60 percent of the party’s members are youth.

“The younger generations who participated in January 25 believe that military trials against civilians should come to an end, and the army should steer away from politics, as the powers given to the military institution are excessive,” he explains.

But older generations believe that the rights and freedoms granted in this draft constitution are the best Egypt’s democratic forces could obtain at this moment, and that any problematic articles could be amended later, Sharqawy adds.

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) — from which both Vice President for Economic Affairs Ziad Bahaa Eddin and Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi hail — seems more inclined to support the constitution. Both politicians are seen as reformist figures in the transitional government, and the only current hope for safeguarding the demands of January 25 in the political process.

Following a debate between two members opposing the document and two others endorsing it, 75 percent of the ESDP’s political bureau voted in favor in the draft constitution.

“Most of the rights and freedoms, as well as the social and economic rights, were great. Of course we had our own reservations regarding military trials against civilians and the powers of the military institution, but this is what could be afforded,” says Sherine Farouk, a member of ESDP’s political bureau and head of its rights and freedoms committee.

But another motivation was also pushing the party toward a “yes” vote.

Farouk believes that a “no” vote would mean a complete collapse of the June 30 alliance between non-Islamist forces and the military, “and we do not want this alliance to collapse. A ‘no’ vote would mean forming another committee to draft another constitution which will make the transitional period longer, which is not in anyone’s favor,” she says.

But ESDP member Hossam Mostafa, who rejects the draft constitution, believes that the alliance is already collapsing, especially after the Protest Law was issued.

“One of our members in Assiut, Hossam Hassan, is already detained for 30 days for breaching the law after he and many party members protested against it. I’m against this draft constitution for the excessive powers given to the military. I also have no trust that state institutions will fairly implement or protect the liberties and freedoms drafted in it,” he asserts.

Sharqawy believes that the June 30 alliance was weak since the moment it was created, and will naturally continue deteriorating as time goes on.

“This alliance was based on the fact that a participatory constitution was going to be drafted, but we have seen a draft based on protecting the interests of state institutions. So it is normal that the alliance is threatened,” he says.

“The collapse started with the Protest Law, further collapses with the constitution and will keep collapsing in the elections,” Sharqawy concludes.

But if civil forces are still keen on preserving the June 30 alliance, the question then becomes if the military is still in need of such an alliance, at least to pass the constitution with an acceptable turnout and majority.

While some observers argue the military could depend more on old players, like the networks of the Mubarak regime, for their electoral machines, the June 30 alliance may still be relevant for maintaining an appearance of legitimacy. 

“The army still needs them [the June 30 alliance]. The question is not only about getting huge turnout or a ‘yes’ vote, but it is also a question of legitimacy. Too many voices of disapproval of the process will undermine this legitimacy,” columnist Nael Shama says.

Shama doesn’t think the constitution would be the breaking point for what he calls a fragile coalition.

“It is a very fragile coalition. Even if [the civil parties] gave up one thing, it will likely disintegrate, especially in the elections. Normally in times of elections political alliances disintegrate,” he asserts.

Shama uses the 50-member committee tasked to draft the constitution as an illustration of the fragility of the alliance. The committee brought together some reform figures, Salafis and state institutions, all of whom had no ideological affinities except for the fact that they were anti-Brotherhood, he argues.  

“The alliance was obvious in the constitution. The army and the judiciary were given their privileges, the democratic forces got freedoms, and the [Salafi] Nour Party kept Article 2 [an article designating Sharia as the source of legislation] given their need to stay in the political process. Now the alliance we see between the liberals and the Salafis will likely disintegrate once elections take place,” he predicts.

Mai Shams El-Din 

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