What is going on in Egypt?
The referendum on the draft constitution to be held on January 14-15, 2014 holds the promise of a transition to democracy in the new charter’s text, while the government has cracked down on demonstrations by sentencing three leading human rights leaders to three years in prison.
The referendum will also be a referendum on the “roadmap” for a transition to democracy set out by the Army and the interim government of Adly Mansour, who signed a restrictive law on demonstrations in late November.
Patrick Kingsley (Cairo), “Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour signs ‘anti-protest law’; Rights groups and lawyers say legislation requiring permission to gather will make legal demonstrations almost impossible, The Guardian, 24 November 2013 (11:27 EST).
The government has, in fact, engaged in a number of actions which appear to be anti-democratic and violative of human rights.
While restrictions and violations of human rights should not be condoned, it may be useful to try to understand the strategy the government seems to be pursuing.
The biggest challenge to the government and the draft constitution does not come from human rights activists, but rather from the Muslim Brotherhood. The November law restricting protests was probably aimed at the onongoing protests by Brotherhood supporters above all.
It is important to the military and the government that the referendum be approved both by a high percentage of voters and by a turn-out with broad participation. They are taking no chances that the Brotherhood might turn the referendum to its advantage.
Once the referendum and the “roadmap” have been approved by Egyptian voters, the transition will move into a new phase. After the new constitution enters into force, human rights advocates will have a stronger set of tools with which to wage their struggle for the rule of law. The landscape will shift.
Significantly, two leading liberal parties have just announced that they will join together, and are also calling on other progressive parties to join them. Moreover, they have come out clearly for the holding of presidential elections prior to national assembly elections, which the draft constitution leaves up to the interim government to decide.
Further, liberal political leaders and parties appear to be moving toward acceptance of General Al-Sisi’s running for president, even pledging their support if he decides to run.
AP, “Egypt’s Moussa defends draft constitution; As Egypt’s draft national charter set to be put to referendum in near future, head of outgoing constitution-amending committee defends final version,” Ahram Online, December 10, 2013.
“Raid on Egyptian rights group widely condemned; Egyptian human rights organisations condemn police raid on Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights and detention of its staff,” Ahram Online , 19 December 2013.
Youssef Hamza, “Egypt’s charter referendum will be a verdict on Islamism, The National (UAE), December 21, 2013 (updated December 22, 2013 at 07:46).
“Egypt’s Maher, Adel and Douma sentenced to 3 years in jail,” CoptsUnited, December 23, 2013.
“Two liberal parties announce merger,” Aswat Masriya, December 22, 2013.
Whether General Al-Sisi decides to run for president, and whether if elected he would respect the new constitution’s provisions, or rather use the blunt instruments of state power in an attempt to re-establish the old order, are questions which can only be answered over time.
In order to have a successful referendum in January, the government of Adly Mansour would do well to demonstrate its respect for the fundamental human rights established in the draft constitution, whose approval by the people of Egypt is so earnestly sought.
The short-sighted use of heavy-handed tactics could defeat the government’s goals of achieving a large turnout for the referendum, and the legitimacy a resounding vote of approval could confer.
Egypt’s future stability lies in the balance.
The Trenchant Observer
For updated news on Egypt from Egptian sources, see
Egypt Online (Egyptian State Information Service. The site contains the official text of the army statement of July 1, 2013.