Egypt: Workers Urged To Reject Constitutional Amendments In March 19 Referendum

Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli. She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

Egypt’s fledgling independent unions have urged members to reject proposed constitutional amendments that are up for a referendum vote on March 19 and to demand a "new constitution that lays the foundations for a new Egypt." In a statement released March 17, the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), and the newly established Independent Trade Union Federation in Egypt, called the referendum a "constitutional patching"  

The unions noted that the proposed amendments, which introduce term limits to the presidency and guarantee judicial supervision of elections, are identical to reforms proposed by former President Hosni Mubarak. They argued that the current constitution has no legitimacy, which, after the January 25th Revolution, resides in the Egyptian people.  

"The 1971 Constitution has become null and void with the resignation of the former president and his abdication of power," the statement read. The power to rule was transferred to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The 1971 Constitution, they argued, had been overridden.  

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces announced plans for the March 19 referendum on March 4.  

The union leaders are worried that any hint of legitimacy given to the old constitution would, in essence, be the first step toward reinventing government "by a new Pharaoh".  

Although the referendum may seem at first glance to be an excellent opportunity for Egyptians to decide for themselves how they are to be governed, it would, if approved, give the two groups that were well-established under Mubarak’s former authoritarian regime -- the former ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), and the Muslim Brotherhood – an unfair advantage in the upcoming elections. 

In calling for a ‘no’ vote, the union leaders also urged workers to demand: a) a temporary constitutional declaration covering the transition period that takes into account the demands of the January 25th Revolution and establishes the validity of the transitional government and the presidential civil council; b) the formation of a civilian presidential council comprised of three members (one from the military), with this "transitional government" to manage the affairs of the country and pave the way for legislative and presidential elections; and c) the formation of a committee of experts to draft a new constitution.  

The unions also suggested substantive changes to any new constitution, including changes to the laws on political parties, political rights, the People's Assembly and the Shura Council. The Shura Council, the upper house of Egyptian bicameral Parliament, has limited power. The leaders recommend its abolition. 

One U.S. expert has urged the Egyptian military to exercise caution during this transition period.  

Although the military is right to place a high priority on the constitution, "the main objective of Egypt's military is to maintain order," said David Williams, the John S. Hastings Professor of Law at Indiana University and director of the school's Center for Constitutional Democracy. Williams noted that "unlike previous presidents, who cultivated popular support, Hosni Mubarak ruled through terror and suppression of the social structure. He leaves behind a ravaged societal framework that may have trouble supporting a constitutional democracy. The military knows this, and there is a real risk that they may not return power to the people after all." Williams also observed that Egypt is coming out of a long period of stagnant authoritarian rule, and time will be needed to carefully re-build all aspects of Egyptian political, economic and social life on a firm basis committed to democratic principles.  

Prof. Williams is right. More time is needed in order for real robust political opposition parties to organize, develop political platforms, and participate in the elections process. A new constitution is needed to start Egypt on a new path of justice and democracy. And since, at least in regard to democratization, Egypt has become a bellwether for the entire Middle Eastern region, let’s hope that they get it right.