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Egyptians to Vote on New Constitution

Alex Finkelstein

Egypt’s military leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi urged Egyptians to approve a new constitution during a speech on Saturday, saying a high turnout for a January 14th and 15th referendum would give legitimacy to the new constitution and help build a modern, democratic state.

Egypt’s proposed constitution would replace a suspended one put forward by President Mohamed Morsi before his ouster in July 2013. It had been approved in a referendum in which only  only 32% of Egyptians voted. Liberal and secular critics complained that the prior constitution did not protect the rights of minorities, including women and Christians, and criticized strict provisions related to Sharia Law and trials held in military courts.

A video screenshot of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi giving a speech earlier this week in Cairo. (Photo: Euronews)

The new constitution attempts to address these concerns with a more secular foundation, prohibiting political parties that discriminate on the basis of religion, race, gender, or geography, and preventing political organizations from collaborating with militant groups. New language also strengthens due process and civil liberties. Specifically, mentioned are the right to a lawyer, the right to assemble, the right to petition, and equal rights for women.

Cairo legislators also gained powers at the expense of the president. The Egyptian Parliament now has the authority, with a two-thirds majority, to either trigger a referendum leading to early elections, or impeach the sitting president.

Military power and influence in government remains a contentious issue. Egypt’s army retains the right to appoint the defense minister for the next eight years and the military budget will not have any civilian oversight. Civilians can still be tried in military courts, however, this authority is limited to cases of direct attacks on military property.

The Muslim Brotherhood, following power grabs while in office and violent attacks thereafter, was designated a terrorist group by the interim Egyptian government. The Brotherhood has denounced the constitution, which would limit the group’s influence, and called for a boycott of the referendum. The Muslim Brotherhood has called for demonstrations but does not plan to hold them near polling stations. In response, the Egyptian government has ramped up security measures for the vote.

Voter turnout later this week will help determine the new constitution’s legitimacy and the mood of average Egyptians. In the end, however, it is the implementation of the constitution – not its provisions – that will determine the future of Egyptian governance.