Egyptian politics gets messy—in a good way

Egyptians are expected to turn out to the polls Saturday in mass numbers to vote on a package of proposed constitutional amendments. It’s a national referendum that seems certain to make history on several levels.

For starters, it’s the first Egyptian national vote in living memory with any degree of uncertainty about the outcome.

Under former president Hosni Mubarak (and all of his predecessors) elections tended to be stage-managed affairs bearing the superficial hallmarks of a functioning democratic process. Egyptian citizens (who have always been a politically savvy bunch) sensed decades ago that the game was rigged and stopped even pretending to care.

That whole dynamic ended with Mubarak’s forced resignation last month in the face of a historic 18-day popular uprising. Now, with the country being ruled by the Supreme Armed Forces Council, Egyptians face the task of building a functioning democratic society. That means deciding which elements of the existing political infrastructure can be repaired and reformed and which elements need to be scrapped entirely and rebuilt from scratch.

This question seems to define people’s feelings heading into Saturday’s vote. Opponents of the amendment package have argued passionately that it is insufficient to simply “fix” the existing constitution and demand a full rewrite — even if that means slowing down the country’s transition to civilian rule.

“The 1971 constitution fell in the revolution. It has no legitimacy,” said Mohammed Salah, a young activist speaking this week at a press conference called by a coalition of secular activist groups who were instrumental in the revolution. “The people want a completely new constitution.”

On the surface, the eight amendments formulated by a military-appointed commission of legal scholars, satisfy many of the basic demands of the protesters who brought the old regime down. They would establish presidential limits of two four-year terms, eliminate obstacles to forming political parties and launching independent presidential campaigns, limit the once-dominant powers of the executive branch and make it much harder for future presidents to govern under indefinite martial law, as Mubarak did.

Approval of the package would place the country on a fast track to parliamentary elections as early as September. Rejection would likely mean a disruption of that schedule and an extension of Egypt’s period of military rule.

Egyptian media has been dominated for the past week by extensive back-and-forth debate over the amendments. Despite a near-universal desire to get the country in civilian hands as soon as possible, an impressive array of political actors has called for a rejection of proposed changes. This includes many of the youth groups who first sparked the rebellion, as well as future presidential contenders Mohammed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa, the outgoing head of the Arab League.

The only significant political player that has endorsed the changes is the Muslim Brotherhood—a development that essentially turns the referendum into a test of the venerable Islamist group’s street power. Flyers distributed throughout Egypt by the Brotherhood are notably short on the usual religious references, but urge its followers to vote yes “for the sake of Egypt’s stability.”

More cynical observers view the Brotherhood’s enthusiasm as a bit of a power play. They charge that the group is trying to speed the path towards early parliamentary elections where its existing grassroots machine would give it a significant advantage before newer political forces have a chance to solidify and organize themselves.

Whatever the outcome, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the feisty amendment debate is that nobody is pushing for a boycott.

Watching Egyptians peacefully and passionately disagree about the future of their country can’t possibly be a bad thing.