Violence Mars Egypt Constitution Vote
January 15, 2014
Al Jazeera America
At least 11 people were killed in confrontations between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and police as Egyptians voted on a draft constitution that may set the stage for a presidential bid by army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.On the first of two days at the polls, at least 11 people were killed. While the constitution appears progressive, critics note that the proposed protections for women, children and minorities are unlikely to be enforced.
Violence Mars Egypt Constitution Vote
Al Jazeera America
(January 14, 2014) -- At least 11 people were killed in confrontations between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and police on Tuesday, as Egyptians voted on a draft constitution that may set the stage for a presidential bid by army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
An additional 28 people were wounded in clashes between security forces and protesters loyal to former President Mohamed Morsi, according to Egypt's Health Ministry. The ministry says the deaths occurred in Cairo, the adjacent province of Giza and two provinces south of the capital, Bani Suef and Sohag.
The election marks the first time Egyptians have gone to the polls since the military deposed Morsi in July.
The Brotherhood, Egypt's largest political force, was recently banished from political life. But that has not stopped the group from calling for a boycott and protests over the draft constitution, which deletes Islamic language written into the basic law approved a year ago when Morsi was still in office. It also strengthens state bodies that defied him: the army, the police and the judiciary.
On Tuesday, Brotherhood supporters staged protests in at least four cities, with police arresting 65 people who were trying to obstruct voting, security officials said.
While a state crackdown has erased many freedoms won by the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, anticipation of a more stable government catapulted Egypt's stock market Tuesday to its highest level since Mubarak's downfall. In its fourth straight day of gains, the main index exceeded its January 2011 peak.
The referendum is a milestone in the political transition plan the army-backed government has billed as a path back to democracy, even as it presses a fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
A presidential election could follow as early as April. A senior European diplomat on Tuesday said Sisi would probably announce his candidacy in the next few days -- a prospect that will delight supporters but could stir more conflict with his Islamist opponents.
With little or no signs of a campaign against the draft constitution -- one moderately Islamist party says its activists were arrested while campaigning for a no-vote -- it is expected to pass easily, backed by many Egyptians who staged mass protests on June 30 against Morsi and the Brotherhood before his removal.
"We are here for two reasons: to eradicate the Brotherhood and take our rights in the constitution," said Gamal Zeinhom, a 54-year-old voter standing in line at a Cairo polling station.
Others cited a desire to bring stability to Egypt after three years of turmoil.
"This vote brings to an end the era of the Brotherhood, who divided us and turned family members against each other," said Manal Hussein, who is from a village below the Giza Pyramids plateau west of Cairo.
Sisi ousted Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected head of state, on July 3. His Islamist opponents say he is the mastermind of a coup that kindled the worst internal strife in Egypt's modern history and revived an oppressive police state.
But after a failed experiment with democracy, many are weary of the upheaval that has gripped this nation of 85 million and shattered its economy. They see Sisi, 59, as someone who can stabilize and protect Egypt from what local media depict as foreign and domestic conspiracies to divide the nation.
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Earlier this week, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Geneva-based group that works to uphold the rule of law, described the referendum as highly flawed.
"The referendum campaign has taken place within a context of fear, intimidation and repression, calling into question the fairness of the entire process," it said in a statement.
The government recently escalated its crackdown on the Brotherhood, declaring it a "terrorist organization" on Dec. 25. Al-Qaeda-inspired militants have stepped up attacks on security forces since Morsi's ouster.
While the government has linked the attacks to the Brotherhood, the group has repeatedly said it is a non-violent movement committed to peaceful resistance to the state.
Meanwhile, a spending bill in the US Congress would restore $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, but only on condition that the Egyptian government ensures democratic reform.
The bill links the $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid to Egypt's sustaining its security relationship with the US and abiding by the Egypt-Israeli peace pact.
A Senate Appropriations Committee summary of the bill said some of the aid would be given only if Egypt supports a democratic transition and holds democratic elections.
The US cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt in October in response to the military coup that overthrew the Morsi government and led to a crackdown on protesters.
Al Jazeera and wire services
Egypt's Proposed Constitution Expands Rights
But Shifts Power to President
Evan Hill / Al Jazeera America
(January 14, 2014) -- Egypt's latest proposed constitution is less conservative, less Islamist and more progressive than the version drafted and approved under the deposed administration of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, but its most persuasive quality might be that campaigning against it is illegal.
At least that's the impression given by state and private propaganda pushing a yes vote, the military-backed government's refusal to allow opposition groups to monitor the process and the recent arrest of political activists who advocated voting no.
The last time Egypt voted on a constitution, in December 2012, it set off weeks of anti-Brotherhood protests that fatally damaged Morsi's administration. This time, army Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who replaced Morsi, has put the weight of the military and his own potential presidential ambitions behind the referendum, but conditions are even worse.
Since Morsi's ouster in July, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest political force, has been nearly banished from public life, and the crackdown on dissent has extended even to the revolution's most prominent secular activists.
For the country's interim leaders, who owe their authority to the military, the constitution represents a chance to argue that the past five months have been worth the bloodshed.
The Brotherhood's top leaders, along with Morsi and his aides, have been imprisoned and charged with serious crimes, and more than 1,000 of Morsi's supporters were killed when security forces stormed sit-ins in mid-August -- the worst mass killing in Egypt's modern history. Thousands more have been arrested.
Liberal parties have applauded the government's campaign against what they call terrorism and advocated approval of the new constitution as a way to regain stability.
"We believe that this constitutional referendum is the first step toward reinstating a democratic institutional framework in Egypt, which would lead to stability and prosperity," the Free Egyptians Party, one of the country's most influential liberal groups, said in a press release on Monday.
But since the coup, attacks on soldiers and police officers have increased, and the government has said that at least 350 troops have died. The violence culminated in the Dec. 24 bombing of Interior Ministry offices in the Nile Delta that killed 16 people; the group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claimed responsibility for the attack, but the government blamed it on the Brotherhood and labeled the organization a terrorist group.
With membership in the Brotherhood effectively outlawed, the crackdown on dissent has extended to secular revolutionary icons such as Ahmed Maher, a co-founder of the April 6 movement, and Alaa Abdel Fattah, a computer programmer and longtime reform advocate. Maher has received a three-year prison sentence for organizing a protest, and Abdel Fattah faces trial on a similar charge.
The Brotherhood's opposition front, the Anti-Coup Alliance, has declared that it will boycott the referendum, as have the April 6 movement and the Strong Egypt Party, which is led by moderate Islamist and former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh.
With the constitution's victory almost assured, observers on both sides have shifted their attention to turnout. The government would like to see it top the roughly 16.8 million voters -- or 33 percent of the electorate -- who participated in Morsi's referendum.
On Monday the Anti-Coup Alliance noted that only 15 percent of eligible Egyptian expatriates, who were allowed to vote early, had cast ballots, describing the figure as an "early defeat" for the "illegitimate black charter."
But after the hyperpartisanship of the vote passes, Egyptians will have to live with their third constitution in nearly as many years.
"Between the state's euphoria and the Muslim Brotherhood's drama, there are those who believe in the absurdity of all this," lamented Ziad al Akl, a senior researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, in a column. "There are those who are very perplexed by the idea of putting people in prison for protesting and at the same time asking people to participate in a democratic referendum."
The new document differs significantly from the constitution approved under Morsi, which passed with 64 percent approval after he issued a decree making it unchallengeable by the courts, provoking fury from liberals, the Christian minority and human-rights advocates.
While the new charter contains articles expanding personal freedoms and rights for Egypt's poor and disenfranchised as well as its Christians, it also cements the power of the country's most powerful institutions and shifts political power back from parliament to the president.
As long as those institutions remain fundamentally unchanged, the new rights will likely remain unenforced.
"Those seeking stronger rights for vulnerable groups will find significant comfort in this text," wrote Zaid al-Ali, a senior adviser at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. "However, anyone hoping for specific mechanisms for those rights to be enforced will be sorely disappointed."
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