CAIRO, Egypt- Egyptians headed to the polls this week to vote in a referendum on a new constitution for the Arab worlds’ most populous nation. Early results showed the charter was approved by an overwhelming majority of voters who cast ballots in the plebiscite. The vote on the new charter is being viewed as a referendum on the popularly-supported military coup that ousted Egypt’s first democratically elected president and as a popularity test of General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the country’s defense minister who spearheaded the coup that deposed President Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist backed by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt’s flagship newspaper, Al-Ahram, reported that unofficial results showed that 38.5 percent of the country’s 52.7 million voters cast ballots in the two day referendum, with 97.7 percent voting in favor of the new constitution, which was drafted by a 50-member constituent assembly heavily shaped by the country’s military.
Although voters had been expected to ratify the document by a comfortable margin, turnout was being viewed as a more important barometer of the popularity of Gen. Sissi, who has suggested that he might run for president if he feels that his candidacy is widely supported by his country’s citizens.
In a December 2012 referendum on Egypt’s last constitution, which was drafted by an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly during Morsi’s brief presidency, 32 percent of the electorate turned out at the polls and the charter was approved by 64 percent of voters who cast ballots. The charter Egyptians voted on this week would replace the Morsi-era constitution, which was criticized by secularists as giving too large a role to Muslim clerics in deciding whether legislation comported with Islamic law.
Although the new constitution continues to describe the “principles of Sharia” as the “main source of legislation,” it no longer contains a provision that was in the Islamist-drafted 2012 charter that gave a detailed definition of Islamic law. The 2012 constitution gave Muslim clerics from al-Azhar, the country’s most important religious institute, the authority to decide whether legislation adhered to Islamic law, but the new charter returns this power to the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Aside from blunting the influence of Islamic law, the constitution voted on this week also codifies some of the powers Egypt’s military has long enjoyed, enhancing the already robust autonomy of the country’s most powerful institution.
Like the 2012 document, the new constitution gives the military-dominated National Defense Council control of the armed forces budget, which will continue to be submitted to parliament as a single item, rather than a list detailing all of the military’s expenditures. During the era of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, the budget of the armed forces was drafted secretly and presented to parliament as a single expense, despite the fact that the constitution in place at the time contained no provisions mandating such a process. The 2012 document formally legalized this practice by giving control of the budget to the National Defense Council and the new constitution once again codifies the councils jurisdiction over the military’s finances and allows the budget to be submitted to parliament as a single entry.
The new charter, like the Morsi-era constitution, also allows military trials for civilians, although it seeks to narrow the circumstances under which civilians can be tried before military courts, authorizing such trials only in cases of “direct assaults” on military premises, personnel, equipment, documents and funds.
Under the constitution voted on this weeks’ referendum, Egypt’s military will also have the authority to appoint its own boss from among its own members for the next eight years. During the Mubarak-era, the defense minister was always an active member of the armed forces, and this practice was incorporated into Egyptian constitutional law in the Islamist-drafted 2012 charter. The new constitution once again mandates that the defense minister come from the armed forces, but enhances the military’s autonomy from civilian oversight even further by requiring the president’s choice for the post to be approved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a panel of high-ranking officers, for the first two presidential terms after the charter is ratified.