Low turnout predicted in Egyptian referendum on divisive constitution

Allies of the Muslim Brotherhood have threatened to attack polling stations

Egyptian women in Cairo with a copy of the new draft constitution. A referendum on the charter takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday. Photograph: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA

Egyptian women in Cairo with a copy of the new draft constitution. A referendum on the charter takes place on Tuesday and Wednesday. Photograph: Khaled Elfiqi/EPA


Egyptians vote today and tomorrow on a new constitution drafted by a 50-member committee representing many sectors of society. Although the Muslim Brotherhood refused to take part, the ultra-conservative Nour party, Muslim and Christian clerics, and scholars from al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s most influential seat of learning, participated in the effort.

Committee chairman and former foreign minister Amr Moussa said the new charter “marks a historic step on our path to a government that is of, by and for the Egyptian people”.

The 2012 constitution, drawn up by a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated commission, has been suspended since president Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood veteran, was ousted on July 3rd. That charter, adopted by 64 per cent of voters – albeit in a turnout of just 32 per cent – polarised the country between fundamentalists and secularists.

The new constitution has split the country into several camps: people who will vote Yes or No or spoil their ballots, Brotherhood supporters who will boycott the vote, and Egyptians who will stay away because they believe voting makes no difference.

The Brotherhood and its allies consider the new charter illegal. Supporters have pledged to disrupt voting and some have threatened to attack polling stations. Thousands of troops and security personnel have been deployed to protect polling stations and voters.

The Nour party, which came second in elections for the dissolved parliament, is actively campaigning for a Yes vote along with the secular Tamarod (Rebel) organisation and parties and factions belonging to the seven-member National Salvation Front, the largest liberal bloc.

Parties planning to vote “no” include the leftist April 6th youth group, a prime mover of the uprising that ousted 30-year president Hosni Mubarak in 2011; revolutionary factions; and the moderately fundamentalist Strong Egypt party, which supports the reinstatement of Mr Morsi.

The interim government and military are urging Egyptians to vote and vote Yes en masse in order to complete the first stage in the road map adopted after Mr Morsi fell, and move on to presidential and parliamentary elections.

Youssef, a Coptic Christian driver, said his community, 10 per cent of the 83 million Egyptians residing in the country, would vote Yes. “They don’t trust the Brotherhood and want the army to take charge” even though the army has often let down the Copts, he said.

Political analyst Hisham Kassem said the new constitution would be approved by a solid majority. “If the constitution gets a No vote we will have to go back to the [flawed] 1971 constitution . . . The road map [with the new constitution as its centrepiece] is the only process [for achieving change]. There are no other options.”

In his view, the Brotherhood’s boycott and active opposition were meant to “derail the state.” If the constitution was adopted, the new elected president and parliament should be in place by August, he said.

“I am pleased to give us a score of two out of 10 [in the drive for democracy]. Change will take us 10 years,” he said.

Ahram Online commentator Dina Samak said that although the new constitution was the best so far it was not the charter Egyptians had sought, because the interim authorities had veered from the road map by failing to initiate a dialogue that included the Brotherhood.

“People are tired. It’s not their game any more. People have to believe in their constitution and that their plans, their dreams are coming true,” she said. Furthermore, the credibility of the poll had been undermined by the arrest of youths distributing leaflets advocating a No vote and by the portrayal in the media of a No vote as “national treason”.

By denying people the No vote they had only two alternatives, Yes or boycott, and they were “pushed towards the Brotherhood”, she said. Ms Samak said that at present “there is too much hatred and fear to adopt a national charter . . . Only a small percentage will vote.” 

In spite of her stand on the referendum, she was “very optimistic. We are at the beginning of a long, radical, classical revolution which will end by creating a new Egypt.”

Variations in 2012 and 2014 constitutions

  • Islam remains the state religion and the principles of Muslim canon law, Sharia, continue to be “the main source of legislation” .
  • The new charter says freedom of belief is “absolute” while the 2012 text said it was “protected,” relegating non- Muslims to “protected” status.
  • Political parties may not be based on religion, gender, race or geography under the new document while in the 2012 constitution there could be no religious discrimination when forming parties.
  • The new constitution adopts a stronger line on personal and political rights. The most important change is the removal of an article that said the exercise of rights and freedoms should not “conflict with” the state and society provisions of the charter.
  • Freedom of speech and assembly is guaranteed “according to the law”, subject to legislation. The state guarantees equality between men and women and provides protection from violence. Slavery and abuse are prohibited. There were no such provisions in the 2012 document.
  • Prison sentences for journalists criticising a president or prime minister have been abolished, although exceptions are made for incitement, discrimination and libel.
  • In both constitutions the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces must approve the appointment of the defence minister, who must be a member of the armed forces, and details of the military budget will remain beyond scrutiny, placing the military beyond civilian oversight.