- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2007

Today, Egyptians will vote on the most far-reaching package of constitutional amendments since the adoption of Egypt’s current constitution in 1971. This will constitute a defining moment in the course of our nation’s history, an endeavor that will provide a greater clarity to Egypt’s vision of itself and its framework of governance.

The objectives of the proposed amendments will be to promote a more pluralist and competitive political system; to ensure a greater balance of power between the branches of government; and to redefine the role of the state in society. Altogether, 34 articles are to be amended, touching on the powers of the executive and legislative branches; the identity and political orientation of the state; and the rules governing the system for both presidential and general elections.

Our present constitution, adopted in 1971, affirmed the socialist orientation of Egypt’s political and economic development. Over the last three decades, however, Egypt has gradually shed much of its socialist legacy, a process that has accelerated significantly over the last four years. With the adoption of a series of deep institutional and structural reforms Egypt is now firmly on the path of a liberalized market economy, achieving an impressive 6.8 percent rate of growth. Sustaining this transformation necessitated altering the socialist orientation enshrined in a number of articles in the constitution, by establishing the principle of “freedom of economic activity” as called for in the proposed package of amendments.

A further amendment touching on the identity of the state seeks to consolidate the principle of equality among all citizens, irrespective of race, religion or gender. In order to strengthen the framework of pluralism in our society, Egypt is to be defined as “a democratic state based on citizenship.” Complementing this, the amendments would prohibit the formation of political parties based on religion or that discriminate on the basis of gender or race. The Middle East being the birthplace of the three monotheistic religions, it is difficult to assume that faith can be completely divorced from politics. Yet allowing the organization of politics on the basis of religion erodes the basis of pluralism. Our objective is to foster an environment conducive to political pluralism, while safeguarding the sanctity of religion from the influence of politics.

However, the true significance of the anticipated constitutional amendments lies in the realm of politics. First, the constitution as amended will redress the imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches of government. Thus, the powers arrogated to the president, especially in situations of national emergency, will be curtailed. This will be complemented by bolstering the powers of parliament, which will now have within its prerogative the ability to confirm and withhold confidence from governments, as well as exercise greater oversight over the national budget.

Secondly, the amendments will allow for substituting the state of emergency with a new antiterrorism bill that will provide for the necessary checks and safeguards on the use of executive power in fighting terrorism, the implementation of which will be subject to judicial oversight.

Third, a constitutional umbrella will be provided for a far-reaching program of electoral reform to encourage greater participation. Central to this effort will be the formation of an independent election commission composed of members of the Judiciary. More significantly, perhaps, will be the adoption of a new election system for presidential and parliamentary elections designed to revive the fortunes of Egypt’s secular parties.

Egypt’s reformers know well the backdrop to this effort. A system of single-district majority representation has favored individual candidates at the expense of political parties, and local issues over national politics. The result is the current bipolar standoff in parliament between the ruling party and the independents with only a minimal representation for the secular parties, many of which have enjoyed a long and rich tradition in Egypt’s history. By moving toward some form of proportional representation system, as well as lowering the threshold for candidates from political parties to compete in presidential elections, the balance will be restored in favor of greater representation for political parties that will compete on the basis of national agendas that can address Egypt’s many challenges.

Taken together, these amendments will institutionalize a more plural and competitive political process in Egypt, while strengthening the system of checks and balances necessary for good governance. In short, it is a constitution that will chart a transition for Egypt’s future, which is precisely why it is engendering such intense debate. Significant as it is, it is by no means the culmination of Egypt’s reform. Needless to say, it is a process that will be confronted with obstacles and resistance, even setbacks. Yet because it realizes their aspirations for a more open, democratic polity, it is a course that Egyptians are determined to pursue.

Nabil Fahmy is Egypt’s ambassador to the United States.

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