Voice of America (Washington, DC)

Egypt: Proposed Constitution Stirs National Debate

Cairo — As Egypt works out a new draft constitution, a period of public debate ahead of a national referendum has begun. Political analysts are split on whether it is an imperfect document good enough for now, or it misses an important opportunity.

With more than 200 articles, Egypt's new draft constitution details everything from the protected role of the military to the rights of fishermen.

Its authors, handpicked by the military-backed government, are hailing it as a success, and say they expect it to pass in a referendum in the coming weeks.

If so, it would become the nation's fourth basic charter in the past three years. Political analyst Saad Eddin Ibrahim of the Ibn Khaldun Center said, while not perfect, it was the best in Egypt's history - so far.

"In terms of reducing the powers of the president and of the executive generally, in terms of holding many public officials accountable to popular questioning and accountability, these are all very positive features of the new constitution," he said.

Others argue the new version doesn't reflect the profound changes in Egypt since the 2011 revolution, including the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi earlier this year.

The new draft is stripped of some references to Islam - a move strongly opposed by Morsi supporters who have denounced the draft.

It also grants greater civil rights. But political activist and influential blogger Wael Khalil said any charter was only as strong as the commitment of those charged to enforce it.

"It maintains the structures of power and privileges of certain sections. It doesn't really empower the citizen in a way that to have a stronger relation with the institutions, with authorities, with power," he said.

Khalil points to an article that allows for the freedom of assembly, qualified by the phrase "in accordance to the law."

One law, recently enforced, was so restrictive as to make the constitutional guarantee, he argued, meaningless. And that, he added, could affect people's reaction to the constitution and the government as a whole.

"The kind of backlash will really depend on how they are acting. I think the assembly law was a stupid, stupid move. It's not going to serve them at all," said Khalil.

But Ibrahim argued that recent protests against that law illustrated the changes that had altered the dynamic between Egypt's rulers and ruled.

"The people of Egypt will be the safeguards, the great safeguards to the new constitution, which is now being intensely debated, has been for some time, and they will have the opportunity to say yes or no," he said.

The interim government expects enough people will come out to approve the new charter - which some hope would give it more legitimacy than the last one. Low voter turnout meant the 2012 constitution passed with less than 20 percent of eligible votes.

Khalil was not so sure, and argued many people were disenchanted. He added, jokingly, they would wait to vote on the next constitution next year.

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