Given the war in Libya, the crackdown in Bahrain, ongoing demonstrations in Yemen and elsewhere (not to mention the disasters in Japan), it's easy to lose track of some of the less dramatic processes of democratization under way. But Saturday will mark a major step forward in Egypt's process for choosing a new government, with a nationwide referendum on the constitutional amendments proposed by the committee of jurists named by the ruling Higher Military Council. There is a lively debate over the amendments, with many supporters of the revolution urging their rejection, preferring to take Tunisia's route and write a new constitution from scratch. What is interesting, however, is that both sides of the debate expect the referendum to be the freest vote Egyptians have enjoyed for years: with full judicial monitoring, and open to everyone over 18 with a national ID card, not just to registered voters. (Members of the judiciary, Armed Forces, and police, however, are excluded.) It is also the first referendum or election in memory in which no one is certain of the outcome beforehand.
A public web page offers full texts of the amendments, an interactive map to find the nearest polling station, and a how-to on the voting. (Link is in Arabic.) The constitutional amendments are as follows (full texts of before and after versions in Arabic here), while Carnegie offers a guide in English here. The changes would entail:
Article 75: In addition to Presidential candidates being Egyptian nationals with two Egyptian parents, the amendment would bar persons holding dual nationality or with a non-Egyptian spouse.
Article 76: Would much simplify the Mubarak-era restrictions on who could run for President, to open up to political parties and independents.
Article 77: The present unlimited six year terms would be replaced by a limitation to two four-year terms.
Article 88: Restores oversight of the elections by an independent judiciary.
Article 93: Would require Parliament to respect the decisions of the Court of Cassation, which in the past has frequently overturned the results of disputed elections but was simply ignored by the regime.
Article 139: Would require the President to name a Vice President within 60 days of taking office. Mubarak ruled for nearly 30 years without naming one, only to name ‘Omar Suleiman in his last weeks.
Article 148: Limits the President's ability to declare a State of Emergency. (The State of Emergency declared after the Sadat assassination in 1981 lasted the duration of Mubarak's term.) the President would need the support of a Parliamentary majority, and the Emergency could not last more than six months without approval by a popular referendum.
Article 179: The provision allowing, as a counterterrorism measure, the trial of civilians by military courts, warrantless arrests and detentions, and other measures, would be deleted outright.
Article 189: Would both revise and add to the procedures for constitutional amendments, requiring approval of amendments by both a Parliamentary majority but also a popular referendum, but also calling on Parliament and the President to name a consituent assembly within six months of elections, which could write an entirely new constitution.
Many of the existing political parties have supported the amendments package (which must be voted up or down as a package); the Muslim Brotherhood has as well, telling its members that voting is a religious duty. Mohamed ElBaradei and many of the younger leaders of the movement, however, favor voting it down and moving directly to a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, rather than liberalizing the old one. One area of debate among reformers is whether to accept the amendments package, which would move towards elections or a new Parliament and President in the coming months, or start by writing a whole new constitution, which would probably entail a longer period of military rule. The military has made clear it wants to hand off power within six months.