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On road to democracy, not all Egyptian voices are heard

March 31st, 2011

Egypt's Coptic Christian leader Pope Shenouda III, center, is greeted by hundreds of Christians as he leaves a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, on March 19, after he voted in a referendum on constitutional amendments. (AP)

After Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign on Feb. 11, the military suspended the constitution and appointed a legal committee headed by top legal adviser and judge, Tarkek El-Bishri, with the task of amending the constitution.

After 10 days of deliberation, the eight member committee announced the proposed changes that will set the stage for parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.

The amended articles eased restrictions on who can run for president, ensured full judicial monitoring of all elections, and limited the number of the presidential terms to two four-year terms.

In the past, the constitution did not set a limit on how many terms a president can serve, which explains how Mubarak stayed in power for thirty years.

Article seventy-five of the constitution was amended to guarantee that the president cannot be a dual-citizen, must be born to Egyptian parents and grandparents, and the candidate’s spouse cannot be of foreign origin. The ambiguous language used in the article regarding the president’s spouse has led some women to oppose the referendum.

Previously, the constitution did not include any restrictions on who the president’s spouse can or can not be (Mubarak’s wife is half Welsh). Article 139 now guarantees that the president will appoint a vice president within the first 60 days of being in office.

Mubarak served five terms without appointing a deputy.

In the weeks leading up to the election on the referendum, Egyptians organized campaigns debating their stance in an attempt to influence public opinion.

The majority of Christians, who make up roughly 10 percent of the population, opposed the referendum fearing it would open the door for Islamic groups to rise to power.

“I fear the Islamists because they speak in civil slogans that have a religious context, like when one said he believed in a civil Egypt but at the same time no woman or Coptic Christian should run for president,” Samuel Wahba, a Coptic doctor, told Reuters.

Article two of the constitution says that Islam is the religion of the state and Islamic jurisprudence is the main source of legislation, therefore, presenting Christians with reasonable doubt regarding the true intentions of Islamic groups.

Christians want to see article two abolished and this has been a point of contention between Christians and Muslims in the weeks leading up to the referendum.

After the revolution, Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood resurfaced and are now legally and actively participating in Egyptian politics. The Brotherhood was one of the main supporters of the amendments as they were one of the two organized factions ready to move forward.

Now, there is a fear, not only among western states, but among Egyptians as well that these groups will hijack the revolution and change the future of a democratic Egypt.

Two presidential hopefuls Amr Moussa, current secretary general of the Arab League and Mohammed El-Baradei, ex-director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency also opposed the referendum believing more time was needed for other political parties to form and respond to the needs of the revolution.

Both candidates also believe the constitution lost its legitimacy when Mubarak resigned.

Therefore, it can not be amended. However, those in support of the referendum argued that it would restore Egypt’s security and stability.

On March 19, elections were held to allow the public to either accept or reject the amendments.

Despite the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s National Democratic Party are the only two parties organized enough to capitalize on the rapid re-birth of Egyptian politics, the amendments passed with 77 percent of the vote.

Though the referendum was intended to be free and fair; voter fraud still plagued the election. In addition, only 41 percent of voters actually voted.

However, by Egyptian standards this was a high voter turnout.

In prior elections, approximately 19 percent of eligible voters voted. With the passing of the amendments, it’s possible Egypt may have a new president by the end of the year.