Egypt: fears of violence as vote on new constitution begins

Jan 14, 2014

Draft charter seen as 'referendum' on removal of president Morsi and gives military more power

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EGYPTIANS head to the polls today to vote on a new draft constitution. If approved it will replace a controversial charter drawn up by President Mohammed Morsi seven months before he was deposed in what his supporters describe as a military coup, says the BBC.

But what are the terms of the new constitution and what is its significance to Egypt and Egyptians?

Why is the two-day vote so important?

There are several reasons. It is the first time Egyptians have gone to the polls since the military ousted Morsi from power last July. Secondly, the vote on the new constitution is widely seen as a as a "referendum on the popularly-backed coup", the BBC says.

Why was Morsi's constitution so unpopular?

Many Egyptians felt the previous constitution, drawn-up by a "100-strong, Islamist-dominated panel", was unrepresentative of Egyptian society, says the BBC. Liberal and secularist groups in particular felt it failed to protect the freedoms they had won after the overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Critics said provisions relating to military courts and the principles of Sharia, were particularly pernicious.

Who drafted the new constitution?

It was drawn up by a 50-member committee that included only two representatives of Islamist parties.

What's in it?

The big picture is that the new constitution would ban religious parties and put more power in the hands of the military, says CNN. The fact that the charter will ensure the military "retains key political and judicial powers" has "dashed hopes that this summer's army takeover was a prelude to a return to full civilian rule", says the Daily Telegraph.

What else?

Under the terms of the draft charter the president may serve two four-year terms and can be impeached by parliament. Islam will remain the state religion, but freedom of belief is absolute. The state also guarantees equality between men and women and political parties may not be formed on the basis of faith, race, gender or geography.

What powers does the constitution give the military?

There are several important rights gifted to the military by the draft charter, says the Telegraph. Firstly, the armed forces will have the right to try civilians in military courts. Secondly, for the next eight years Egypt's defence minister will be a member of the military and the military council will have a veto over his appointment.

How are Morsi's supporters responding to the vote?

The ousted president's party, The Muslim Brotherhood, is boycotting the vote and there are fears of violence on the streets. A massive security operation is underway with more than 200,000 police officers and 200 combat groups deployed around polling stations. Shortly before voting began, an explosion took place near a court building in Cairo's Imbaba district, although no casualties were reported, the BBC reports.

What happens next?

If the draft is passed, it should pave the way for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections. The BBC says it now seems certain that army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi - the man who orchestrated Morsi's removal - will run for president.

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