Egypt: A Referendum to Roll Back Reform

A half dozen opposition members of Egypt’s Parliament stepped out of the People’s Assembly a little after noon last Tuesday, expecting to join hoards of protesters there. Instead, they were met with an eerily empty street, blocked on both sides by plainclothes police agents manning iron barricades. What was meant to be a show of popular discontent against restrictive legislation passed in the Parliament hours earlier became yet another illustration of how far freedoms have been rolled back in Egypt in recent months. While some of the parliamentarians tried to make the best of the situation by delivering bombastic statements of outrage to the few that made it past security officials, there was no ignoring the pervasive air of defeat.

“This is a dark comedy,” said Hamdeen Sabahy, an opposition M.P. in the People’s Assembly and head of the Nasserist Karama Party, as he walked away from the protest. “We are all simply actors in a play of democracy,” he said. “A poorly directed play,” added a fellow parliamentarian.

It’s a drama that will enter its denouement earlier than expected, as Egyptians head to the polls on Monday for a rushed referendum on amendments championed by five-term Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Building on promises from his 2005 re-election campaign to reform the constitution, Mubarak ordered the Parliament—dominated by his National Democratic Party (NDP)—to draw up these amendments last December. Democracy advocates hoped that this could be a major step toward true reform in Egypt. But the process quickly became shrouded in secrecy so as to minimize opposition participation. “The discussion was purely one-sided,” said Sabahy. “They didn’t take suggestions from any of the independents. Only the ruling party had the right to contribute.”

Over 100 opposition deputies boycotted the final discussions—gathering instead outside the Parliament on Sunday in black sashes and black ties to mourn the death of the constitution. Their absence did not prevent the NDP, with its two-thirds majority in Parliament, from passing all 34 amendments this week—a package described by Amnesty International as Egypt’s “greatest erosion of human rights in 26 years.”

Mubarak has touted these amendments—the first major change in the constitution since 1971—as part of his efforts to increase democracy in Egypt. The amendments will “broaden the scope of popular participation in decision making,” Mubarak told the state-owned newspaper Akhbar el-Yom over the weekend. But opposition groups from across the political spectrum—ranging from socialists, leftists and secularists to the conservative Muslim Brotherhood delegation—have gathered in an unprecedented show of unity against these changes, which they claim only seek to sustain the ruling party's hold on power. “No rational person can actually imagine such blatant abuse of civil liberties as reform,” said Sabahy.

The most controversial aspect of the amendment package is a new antiterrorism law that will replace the heavy-handed Emergency Law—in place since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat—which had been used for the past 25 years to repress political opposition to the regime. The new law, capitalizing on a slew of terrorist attacks in Egypt over the past few years, would enable the government to violate civil liberties in the name of national security. “The responsibility of safeguarding security and public order in the face of the dangers of terrorism,” the new amendment reads, “cannot be hampered by the measures stated in the articles … [about] the private life of citizens.” The legislation also allows the president to bypass traditional courts and to refer terror suspects to military tribunals whose rulings cannot be appealed.

The government is unapologetic about the broad powers the new law extends to the state. “Terrorism is not a normal crime, it’s an exceptional crime that involves transnational activities, finances, arms and executing detailed plans,” said Ali El Dean Hillal, a member of the NDP Policy Secretariat. “To combat terrorism you need special measures.” Hillal cites countries like the United States, Britain and India as examples of nations that have all implemented stringent antiterror laws in recent years.

Human-rights groups, however, are concerned that the government’s track record on safeguarding personal liberty does not bode well for a principled application of the new law. “Instead of putting an end to the secret detentions, enforced ‘disappearances,’ torture and unfair trials before emergency and military courts, Egyptian M.P.s are now being asked to sign away even the constitutional protections against such human-rights violations,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program, in a press release this week.

Critics of the amendment consider the new law even worse than the infamous Emergency Law. “The Emergency Law was never part of the constitution, so any citizen had the right to go to the courts to challenge it, and many would actually win,” said Abdul-Monem Al-Mashat, head of the political science department at Cairo University. “With the new law, Mubarak has made sure you cannot do that any more.”

The amendment to article 88 of the constitution replaces judicial supervision of elections with a centralized electoral commission—a thinly veiled jab at Egypt’s judges, whose increasingly vocal criticism of the regime after last year’s elections reinvigorated the country’s reform movement. The NDP claims that the amendment was motivated by practical rather than political considerations. “The amount of new voters increases by over a million every year,” said Hillal. “We already do the elections over two months. If we had judges at every box, we would have to extend the time of the elections indefinitely.” Hillal also emphasizes that the new system for electoral supervision allows for elections to happen on a single day, which removes a major source of corruption and irregularity in previous elections.

But by taking electoral supervision away from one of the last independent forces in the Egyptian government and putting it in the hands of an electoral commission comprised of political appointees and with close links to the notoriously corrupt Interior Ministry, there will clearly be more opportunity for vote tampering and election fraud.

“The law is opening the door for the return to the fabrication of election results,” said Al-Mashat. “We’ve never had a commission appointed by the executive that is neutral, especially one comprised of people aspiring for higher political offices that are dependent on the good will of the executive.”

The Muslim Brotherhood is also a clear target of this amendment package. Though it is already illegal to form political parties based on religious principles, members of the Islamic party were able to win 88 seats—almost one fifth of the Parliament—as independents in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Since taking office, the Brotherhood has proven to be a strong voice for reform in the Parliament and vocal critics of the NDP. One of the new amendments, ostensibly enacted to further the regime’s latest catchphrase of  “a democratic system based on citizenship,” extends the old regulations to include not just political parties but also “any political activity … based on any religious background.”  Another amendment mandates that presidential candidates come from an established political party, effectively barring the outlawed Brotherhood—the only group popular enough to challenge the NDP—from fielding a candidate. “The old law closed the door to the Muslim Brotherhood, but that wasn’t enough,” said one NDP parliamentarian. “This law closes the windows too.”

Another one of the 34 amendments gives the president the ability to dissolve Parliament at will—an act that previously required a national referendum. “There hasn’t been a history in Egypt for the president to dissolve Parliament, unlike places in the region like Jordan,” said Michelle Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin. “There is the fear that this could become a pattern now that it is easier for the president to do it.”

Additionally, a number of the amendments seek to enshrine the absence of a vice president in Egypt—a situation created by Mubarak when he refused to choose a deputy after taking over for Sadat. Many see this move, as well as the amendments that restrict political competition, as yet another strategy for Mubarak to smoothly pass the presidency on to his son Gamal. “Mubarak said himself in December, when he made the speech requesting these amendments, that their purpose is to put in place new political conditions for the next generation,” Dunne said. “All indications are that it’s going to be Gamal Mubarak at the head of that.”

Reformists in Egypt reserve much of their scorn for the U.S. government, which they claim has abandoned democracy in Egypt. Hopes were high following a forceful 2005 speech by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Cairo, in which she openly chastised the Mubarak government’s slow pace of reform—a slap on the wrist that gave way to a brief opening of freedoms in Egypt. But Washington quickly lost its appetite for democracy promotion in the wake of victories by Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood at the polls across the region. “America doesn’t want real reform in Egypt because democracy means the right of all people to elect and form a government,” Sabahy said, “and any government that comes about in such a manner would be against America’s policies.”

Many Egyptians feel that the Bush administration gave Mubarak a free pass on his domestic plans in return for Egypt’s support on regional tensions over Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. In stark contrast to Rice’s earlier speech, her visit to Cairo this year contained virtually no mention of reform. “The U.S. has chosen to defer to the Egyptian government, full stop,” Dunne said. “There is no evidence that the U.S. has tried to have any impact at all on the amendment process.”

In keeping with this muted approach, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack’s only real criticism of the amendments is that they “certainly raise questions about whether or not the Egyptian government has, in fact, met its own standards and benchmarks [on reform].” Illustrating the sharp shift in the administration’s attitude toward publicly promoting democracy, McCormack summed up the U.S. position on the amendments by saying, “I, quite frankly, don't want to insert the United States government in the middle of what should be a domestic political event in Egypt.”

The amendments passed this week are not all bad. Some measures give Parliament more oversight over the budget and the approval of the cabinet, decentralize government authority by giving more power to regional councils, emphasize the importance of environmentalism and open the possibility for a women’s quota in Parliament (which currently has only nine elected female representatives). The government has also finally done away with a dozen clauses in the constitution that mention socialism—clauses proven irrelevant for years since the government embarked on its projects of privatization.

For Egyptian reformists, however, these minor gains disappear in the overwhelming restrictions that characterize the entire package. Opposition leaders had originally hoped to use the weeks before the April 4 referendum on the amendments to mobilize voters against the new curbs. Mubarak has different plans, announcing on Tuesday that the referendum would take place on Monday, March 26—less than a week after the language of the amendments was finalized in Parliament. “The accelerated schedule was clearly meant to prevent any debate,” said Al-Mashat.

In a country with little political consciousness beyond bread-and-butter issues, opposition groups feel they have been left with no choice but to boycott the referendum. But since the referendum only needs a simple majority to pass, there is little expectation that the boycott will significantly affect the outcome. And the NDP has already dispatched droves of its operatives across the country to bring their supporters to the polls, eclipsing even the symbolic protest offered by the opposition’s boycott.

Mubarak has pulled out all the stops to ensure the easy passage of these amendments, despite predictions that they could undermine his country's stability. “People will regret pushing for these amendments, because fanaticism and extremism are always the outcome of marginalization, so we can expect to see a very unfortunate rise in violence in Egypt soon,” said Al-Mashat. “The question is just how soon, but the future doesn’t look too bright.” Nor, at this point, does Mubarak's legacy.