Last updated: December 23, 2012 7:11 pm

Egypt voters back Morsi charter

Egypt©Reuters

Egyptian voters this weekend approved a contentious new constitution, marking a new phase in the country’s post-revolutionary transition and the political struggle between its Islamists and liberals.

According to unofficial tallies culled from individual polling stations and published online by the state-owned Ahram news website, 64 per cent of Egyptians voted in favour of the constitution, supported by President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies but vehemently opposed by liberals, leftists, secularists and Coptic Christians.

Fewer than a third of registered voters showed up at the polls, compared with almost half during this year’s presidential elections. Still, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party hailed the referendum as a milestone.

“The Egyptian people continued the march towards completion of their modern democratic state, having irrevocably turned the dark pages of past injustice and oppression,” the party said in a statement.

On Sunday, the first day of trading after the plebiscite, Egypt’s main EGX30 stock index slipped 1.5 per cent while the Egyptian pound slid to new lows against the dollar, possibly on rumours of the imminent resignation of Farouk El-Okdah, Central Bank governor.

Many hope approval of the draft will end the instability and occasional violence that have characterised Egypt’s topsy-turvy transition after the uprising that drove President Hosni Mubarak from power almost two years ago. But analysts predicted many potential pitfalls ahead unless Mr Morsi and his opponents revise their expectations and strategies.

“The referendum will not end the conflict or the polarisation,” said Emad Shahin, a professor of politics at the American University in Cairo. “What will end the polarisation is a sincere effort to achieve national reconciliation and for the Morsi administration not to behave as if they achieved a major victory.”

Election officials may not declare a final result for days, after hearing appeals and reviewing allegations of cheating and irregularities. Opponents of the charter immediately stepped up challenges to the legitimacy of the vote and vowed to continue opposition to the constitution by peaceful means.

“The Egyptian people said No while the ballot box said Yes,” Sameh Makram Ebeid, of the liberal Dostour party, declared during a press conference. “The election is not democratic and does not represent the Egyptian people.”

Courts have also agreed to hear several cases against the legality of the referendum, and a battle between the Brotherhood and the judiciary shows no signs of easing up.

On Sunday, hundreds of prosecutors staged a sit-in to demand the resignation of the new prosecutor-general appointed by Mr Morsi in what jurists decry as a violation of the judiciary’s independence.

Mr Morsi over the weekend appointed 90 members to the upper house of the country’s parliament, called the shura, giving it legislative powers until parliamentary elections next year.

The lower house of parliament was dissolved by the country’s judiciary and military earlier this year, with legislative authority first going to the armed forces commanders and later to the president. Fresh elections for a new lower house are to be held within months. But analysts warn that the constitution’s vagueness on the powers of parliament mean more political instability.

“We will have big problems in the next house of representatives if it doesn’t have full authority,” said Ahmed Atta, a former leader of the moderate Islamist Wasat party. “The relations between the two councils are very confusing.”

The constitution has been praised for weakening the powers of the presidency, limiting the officeholder to two terms. But scholars have called parts of the constitution unclear or a threat to Egypt’s secular traditions. Two articles that appear to allow Islamic law to trump protections of civil liberties are enshrined in the rest of the document.

Puritanical Islamists called Salafis have hailed the articles as a way to pursue their agenda of imposing Islamic law.

Mr Morsi and his allies have said the charter can be amended after a new parliament is in place. But while proposing changes only requires the approval of 20 per cent of lawmakers, amending the document requires a two-thirds majority, requiring a broad support across the ideological spectrum.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is under enormous pressure,” said Khaled Fahmy, a historian at the American University in Cairo.

“They need to deliver to placate even their rank and file, much less the rest of the country. They cannot to do it alone and I think they know it. The question is whether they extend an arm to [the liberals] and some of the old guard. or will they extend an arm to the Salafists or the military and the police.”

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