Saturday, December 15, 2012

Morsi’s Flawed Referendum

A sharply divided Egypt begins voting today on a controversial draft constitution. In principle, this important way station in the country’s democratic journey is an occasion for Egyptians to celebrate. Casting a vote in a free election or a popular referendum are clear manifestations of the democratic process. Another reason to be optimistic about Egypt is the way the Egyptian people reacted to what seemed to many as an attempt by President Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party to tighten their grip on the country through the President’s constitutional declaration.

Whether Mr. Morsi’s miss-step was part of a sinister power grabbing plot by the Brotherhood or a benign but badly communicated move, the fact remains that millions of Egyptians have provided a clear indication to the world that the old days of acquiescence  are over and that the Egyptian people will not allow dictatorial or authoritarian practices even when covered by the cloak of Islam.

But what about the contents of the proposed constitution? It is of course for Egyptians to say, but if I were an Egyptian I would vote against it. Declaring Islam as the Egyptian state’s religion sends a terrible message to the millions of Egyptian Christians that the state is not equally theirs. States should not have religions. People do. The fact that this reference to state religion is not new and is included in some other country’s constitutions as well  is not a reason to accept it; especially now that Egypt has a chance to write a new national charter that belongs to the 21st century.

Even more problematic is Article 219, which leaves room for fundamentalist legislation and policies in the future. Millions of Muslims and Christians have expressed grave concerns about this article. If that is not the intention of the drafters as they claim then the wording of this article should be changed to allay those concerns.

What I find most problematic, however, is not the draft constitution itself but the fact that it is being put to a referendum on a simple majority basis. A constitution is the ultimate national contract that sets the principles by which a society is governed, laws are passed and policies implemented. It should command the support of a large majority of the population. This is also true about amendments to constitutions, where majorities of two thirds or even three quarters are commonly required. It is rather surprising that this point is not being raised strongly enough by the opposition. A constitution that is opposed by a large minority of the population is a flawed constitution-in any country.

Had I been in Morsi’s shoes I would have issued a constitutional declaration making the majority requirement in the referendum at least two thirds (and maybe even three quarters) of voters.

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