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Pivotal vote on Egypt’s new constitution stirs violence

January 14, 2014 at 6:30 PM EDT
Egyptians lined up to vote on a new constitution, despite fresh protest violence that killed 11 people. Advocates for the current government support the document, while members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood have denounced it. Margaret Warner reports on the strong political divisions inside

GWEN IFILL: In Egypt today, at least 11 people were killed in sporadic protests and clashes, as millions went to the polls to vote on a new constitution. The violence highlighted the deep political divisions that persist six months after its Islamist president was ousted from office by the military.

NewsHour chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER: For the second time in little more than year, Egyptians lined up today to vote on a new constitution. They seemed eager, but anxious.

WOMAN (through interpreter): May God bring calm to the country. Many people have been lost

MARGARET WARNER: The campaign for the balloting, which ends tomorrow, was intense, with advocates for the current government urging a yes-vote.

MAN (through interpreter): No one will ever agree 100 percent with any constitution. I would say, if you are agreeing with just 60 percent of it, say yes.

MARGARET WARNER: And the government’s nemesis, members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, denouncing it.

MAN (through interpreter): We had a transparent election that elected Morsi, and it was blown away. It is impossible to say that now there is democracy or a fair referendum.

MARGARET WARNER: There are high stakes in this week’s vote. It’s the first chance for Egyptians to formally register their verdict on last summer’s stunning developments, when millions took to the streets June 30 to protest the economic failures and heavy handed rule of elected President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-led government.

Then, on July 3, he was ousted by the military under Army General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The Brotherhood labeled it a coup. But Sissi’s appointed interim government promised to restore civilian democracy within nine months and, as a first step, named a commission to re-write the Morsi era constitution.

Commission vice chair, prominent Cairo attorney and women’s rights advocate Mona Zulficar, says the document would ensure many citizens’ rights that previous governments suppressed.

MONA ZULFICAR, Egyptian Constitutional Committee: It provides guarantees for equal opportunity. It provides guarantees for equality before the law, without discrimination on any basis. And it provides explicitly that no discrimination will be permitted bases on sex, religion, belief, social or political affiliation.

MARGARET WARNER: The proposed document does protect women and religious minorities and the freedoms of speech and assembly. And it returns Islamic Sharia law to its pre-Morsi era status as the basis for legislation, but no more.

But it grants new powers and nearly unlimited autonomy to the military, the police and the judiciary.

Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations believes the document won’t safeguard citizens against government abuses any better than constitutions of the past.

STEVEN COOK, Council on Foreign Relations: It’s clearly deeply flawed. If you look at the constitution, there are protections for personal freedoms and political rights, but the key thing has been is that Egypt’s leaders have been — gone about promulgating implementing legislation that essentially removes those rights.

MARGARET WARNER: And because it was drafted without official input from the Muslim Brotherhood, he says, it’s as exclusive and one-sided a document as the Morsi government was accused of writing in 2012.

STEVEN COOK: They have presented this constitution as a way forward, when it’s really essentially a step back. It has not been an inclusive system.

MOHAMED TAWFIK, Egyptian Ambassador to the United States: First of all, it cannot possibly be a step back, because the last constitution we had by the Muslim Brotherhood, that was absolutely terrible. So, you can’t get worse than that.

MARGARET WARNER: Egypt’s ambassador to Washington, Mohamed Tawfik, insists that Islamist figures and Brotherhood members did participate in its writing as individuals.

MOHAMED TAWFIK: Their ideology, their world view, their perspective was represented, although they didn’t actually participate as a political party.

MARGARET WARNER: But Egypt’s largest political and social movement is calling on Egyptians to stay home this week.

Aly Khafagy is a youth leader of the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party.

ALY KHAFAGY, Freedom and Justice Party (through interpreter): The articles of this constitution are legitimizing military rule. That has already been rejected already by the Egyptian street. We are boycotting this document written with the blood of the Egyptian martyrs.

MARGARET WARNER: He was referring to the violent police clearing of anti-coup protest sites last summer, like this one at Cairo’s Rabaa Square. Hundreds were killed.

Thousands of Brotherhood leaders and rank-and-file have been detained and the group’s assets confiscated. Yet Brotherhood protests have continued, some sparking street clashes with police wielding tear gas and flash-bang grenades.

The ongoing polarization between Egyptian authorities and the now-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood has disrupted the image the interim government wants to project, that it’s on a steady nine-month path to democratic elections and a new government based on inclusion.

The last six months have also seen growing professional-scale terrorist attacks, like this Christmas Eve bombing of a police station which killed more than 15. The Brotherhood denied responsibly, and a radical jihadi group claimed it. Yet, the next day, the cabinet designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

Ambassador Tawfik says the designation is based on evidence.

MOHAMED TAWFIK: The Muslim Brotherhood has provided support, logistical support and intelligence support, to some small extremist terrorist groups, and that, because of this support, the capacity of these groups to cause harm has grown exponentially.

KHALIL AL-ANANI, Middle East Institute in Washington: I would say this is a very shortsighted decision to brand the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. There’s no solid evidence that the Brotherhood is involved with any kind of terrorist actions.

MARGARET WARNER: Khalil Al-Anani, a scholar of Islamist movements and now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, believes the government’s motives are more political.

KHALIL AL-ANANI: One of the things behind this is the attempt by the state to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood and to put an end…

MARGARET WARNER: To eradicate it?

KHALIL AL-ANANI: Eradicate them and to uproot them, I would say, and to put an end to their ongoing protesting in the street.

MARGARET WARNER: He warns the move could prompt some Brotherhood members, especially younger ones, to turn to violence, and trigger the kind of Islamist insurgency Egypt saw in the 1980s and ’90s.

You think it could lead to that?

KHALIL AL-ANANI: Absolutely. Their argument is that and — is that they are branded as terrorists. So, what is left for them?

MARGARET WARNER: Brotherhood figures aren’t the only ones being silenced. So are liberal dissenters, including young leaders of the January 2011 revolution that drove longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak from power.

One of them, Ahmed Maher of the April 6 Movement, and two compatriots were convicted and imprisoned last month for breaking a new law restricting protests.

Heba Morayef, country director of Human Rights Watch, says the government is trying to muzzle all dissent.

HEBA MORAYEF, Human Rights Watch: They are monitoring political activities. And what happened — what coincided with that was a very targeted smear campaign against anybody who speaks of human rights, against anybody who criticizes the police or criticizes the military. And the regime right now is trying to reverse the last three years, to turn back the clock to pre-January 2011.

MARGARET WARNER: In fact, under the proposed document, the military would gain sole authority over its budget, and the last word on choosing a defense minister, greater constitutional autonomy than ever before, says Steven Cook.

STEVEN COOK: It institutionalizes the situation in Egypt that’s existed for a long time, which is that the military is autonomous unto itself.

MARGARET WARNER: And no civilian oversight?

STEVEN COOK: There is no civilian oversight over — over the Egyptian armed forces in the constitution.

MARGARET WARNER: Constitution commission vice chair Zulficar makes no apologies for granting the military protected status amid all the turmoil.

MONA ZULFICAR: It’s very important for Egypt to protect the unity and the integrity and the safety of our Egyptian army, to protect Egypt’s national security and Egypt’s borders, and also to stand up for the Egyptian people.

MARGARET WARNER: The outcome of this week’s vote, the turnout, as well as the margin, is sure to be read as a referendum on Egypt’s turn under the military-appointed government.

Last weekend, General el-Sissi urged Egyptians to turn out in large numbers and said he would consider running in the upcoming presidential election if the people request it. It seems a far cry from the dreams of the Tahrir Square revolutionaries, who set all this change in motion three years ago.