The Egyptian constitutional referendum of March 2011: a new beginning?

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The Egyptian constitutional referendum of March 2011: a new beginning?

Posted 29/03/2011 by Marty Harris

Man waving the egyptian flag on top of a Lion statue
The ousting of the Egyptian Government in February 2011 was followed by a referendum on constitutional changes, held on 19 March. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the interim ruling body following the departure of President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February, suspended the 1971 constitution and dissolved parliament on 13 February. A drafting committee of jurists was appointed to write proposed constitutional amendments, the idea being that once a referendum on the changes was held, parliamentary, followed by presidential elections, could be held.

The referendum was held on 19 March 2011, with 77 per cent voting in favour of the constitutional amendments. Voter turnout was about 41 per cent—18.5 million people out of an eligible voting population of about 45 million. This paves the way for elections to be held within six months for the People’s Assembly (national parliament).

Prior to the referendum the military council announced a media blackout, to be enforced during the weekend leading up to the poll. According to the council this was intended to prevent the publishing of any opinions, suggestions or analysis that might influence public opinion (either positively or negatively) towards the referendum and constitutional amendments.

The constitutional changes can be summarised as follows:
  • New eligibility requirements for the position of President (Article 75). The President must be Egyptian without dual nationality, must be born to Egyptian parents, be at least 40 years old in Gregorian years, and not be married to a foreigner. Article 75 of the 1971 Constitution did not stipulate that the President could not be married to a foreigner.

  • Easing of restrictions for the nomination of a presidential candidate (Article 76). The existing Constitution required a presidential candidate to have the support of at least one-third of the members of the People’s Assembly. In order to qualify for nomination a candidate now needs 30 000 signatures from eligible voters in at least 15 different governorates, or the endorsement of 30 elected members of parliament, or the backing of a political party with at least one elected member of parliament. The new requirements for candidature are seen as less onerous.

  • Establishment of a two-term limit for individual Presidents (Article 77). The 1971 Constitution placed no limit on the number of terms which a President could serve.

  • Judicial supervision of the entire election process, from voter registration to announcement of results (Article 88). Supervision will be vested in an all-judge High Elections Commission. The Article in the old Constitution stated that ‘The Law shall determine the conditions which members of the Assembly must fulfil as well as the rules of election and referendum, while the ballot shall be conducted under the supervision of the members of a judiciary organ’, without explicitly stating that an independent judiciary body would supervise the whole process.

  • Giving the highest court of appeal the authority to arbitrate disputed election results (Article 93). Before the March 2011 referendum this authority was vested, under Article 93, in the People’s Assembly.

  • Revisions to Article 148 of the Constitution place restrictions on when the President can declare a state of emergency. The enforcement of a state of emergency now needs parliamentary approval, and in length of time cannot exceed six months unless approved by a plebiscite. The original article stated ‘the state of emergency in all cases, shall be for a limited period, which may not be extended unless by approval of the Assembly.’ Egypt has been under a continuous state of emergency since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat on 6 October 1981.

  • The removal of Article 179 of the Constitution which allowed civilians to be tried in military courts and legalised controversial surveillance methods.

  • The drafting of a new constitution (Article 189). Article 189 of the 1971 Constitution requires that constitutional amendments can be proposed by either the President or a parliamentary majority. While this has not changed, the new constitution supposedly requires the new parliament to appoint a constitutional assembly within six months of taking office, which would then draft a completely new constitution. Whether the new Article explicitly requires a new constitution to be written has been disputed.
Like many authoritarian countries, Egypt held many referendums in the past. Recent constitutional referendums were held in 2005 (to allow the direct election of the President in a multi-candidate race) and in 2007 (which banned religious political parties). These referendums, along with previous parliamentary and presidential elections, have been severely criticised by human rights organisations and Western governments.

On 20 March 2011 US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon praised the 2011 Egyptian constitutional referendum: 
Success in Egypt in the transition towards democracy is really a critical thing and we've always been very focused on that. And today we've had a successful referendum, a constitutional referendum in Egypt, where -- and we want to congratulate the Egyptian people and the Egyptian government on the successful running of the constitutional referendum.
The accounts that we’re seeing -- and we’ve been following this very closely and in touch with the Egyptian government and others in Egypt -- suggests that Egyptians turned out in unprecedented numbers today; that, by and large, they were able to vote freely and the vote was conducted in a peaceful, orderly fashion. It’s really an important achievement. Seeing so many Egyptians exercise their newly won freedom is a cause for optimism, and it will provide a foundation for further progress as the Egyptians continue to build a democratic future.
The United States will continue to provide whatever support and assistance we can as Egypt continues on its path towards additional free and fair elections and a government that reflects the aspirations of its people.  
In terms of opposition to the poll, a number of prominent figures, including presidential hopefuls Muhammad el-Baradei and Amr Moussa, opposed the constitutional referendum. They believe that the constitutional changes were drawn up too quickly—being drafted in 10 days and open for public discussion for three weeks—and that the constitutional amendments do not go far enough to limit the powers of the President. El-Baradei was reportedly attacked by a group of demonstrators when he tried to vote in the referendum in Cairo.

Some commentators also believe that the amendments, along with the upcoming parliamentary poll, will ensure that the two most established political movements (the Muslim Brotherhood, and the former ruling party, the National Democratic Party) do well. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote. In this vein Ziad el-Elaimy, member of the ‘Alliance of the Youths’ Revolution’ has stated
They [The Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party] are able to organize themselves and prepare for quick elections. 
The groups behind the revolution haven’t yet organized themselves. 
Further analysis on this argument is available in al-Masri al-Youm.

For more information on the referendum and the next steps for Egypt, see the Guide to Egypt’s elections, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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