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A turning point for Egypt

Overshadowed by the terrifying events in Japan and the violence in Libya, the struggle for Mideast democracy will reach a turning point this week in Egypt.

I'm not referring to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's visit to Cairo on Wednesday, including a walk through Tahrir Square, the scene of last month's revolution. That visit was significant, both for what happened and what didn't, but I'll get to that later.

I refer instead to a national referendum Saturday that will consider several amendments to Egypt's constitution. The vote will determine whether the country advances toward the democratic reforms the rebels are seeking, or slides toward a mix of authoritarian and Islamist rule.

Let me first give you the good news about Egypt: In stark contrast to the bloodshed in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, most ongoing battles in Cairo involve points of law, not weapons. That doesn't mean that this legal strife is not tense and divisive; it will decide whether new, more democratic political forces can emerge on the Egyptian scene.

At first glance, the proposed constitutional amendments appear to make some positive changes, such as limiting Egyptian presidents to two four-year terms.

But then things get sticky. Many Egyptian constitutional experts complain that the military -- which is temporarily in charge -- failed to include the country's top constitutional experts on the panel that wrote the amendments. It did include jurists close to the old regime, along with a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization.

Critics say the referendum fails to mandate the rewriting of the current, much-criticized constitution. One hotly debated article of that document decrees that the principles of sharia (Islamic law) provide the source for all legislation.

What really scares the young rebels, however, is that the amendments set up an optional process for rewriting the constitution that, if used, would effectively hand control to the Muslim Brotherhood and pols from the old regime.

Nearly all the groups that led the revolt, along with all opposition parties, are urging the public to vote no on the referendum. They want the military to postpone parliamentary elections for a year, during which a new constitution is drafted through a more open process. This would also give new parties time to organize.

So, Americans -- who have a dog in the Egyptian democracy fight -- should be watching to see what happens Saturday. After all, Egypt is the largest and most important Arab country. If Egypt's revolution goes well, it could help stabilize a reeling region.

This brings me back to Clinton, who said in Cairo, "No one is permitted to hijack this revolution." The United States would "help in any way possible," she added.

Yet the leaders of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth refused to meet with Clinton in Cairo. This, I was told, was because her early statements "were totally against the revolution and supported the [Mubarak] regime."

I wish they had met with Clinton. She surely grasps now that Egypt is central to a Mideast whose uprisings are mostly going awry. She offered Egypt an economic-aid package that could help create desperately needed jobs.

But I hope she was also urging the Egyptian military, with whom we have economic leverage, to listen more closely to the young rebels. In a region where U.S. influence is waning and the White House is still groping for a policy, we need Egypt to succeed.

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