State Dep’t Avoids Direct Criticism of Egypt’s New Islamist Constitution

December 26, 2012 - 5:54 AM

egypt vote

An Egyptian man shows his inked finger after casting his vote in the second round of a referendum on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi in Fayoum, 62 miles south of Cairo, Egypt, on Sat., December 22, 2012. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Reacting Tuesday to passage of Egypt’s divisive new constitution, the State Department chose not to directly criticize its Islamist character, noting only that “12any Egyptians have voiced deep concerns” and calling for peaceful dialogue.

“We hope those Egyptians disappointed by the result will seek more and deeper engagement,” department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said in a Christmas Day statement. “We look to those who welcome the result to engage in good faith. And we hope all sides will re-commit themselves to condemn and prevent violence.”

Over the weekend, in the second of two rounds of voting on the draft constitution, 71 percent of those who voted, voted in favor, meaning overall support for the charter was almost 64 percent, according to unofficial results. Voter turnout was just 30 percent.

The outcome is a major victory for President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, and for fellow Islamists in the fundamentalist Salafist Nour movement.

“We cannot celebrate the trade of an authoritative regime for an Islamic dictatorship,” U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in response to the referendum outcome.

“Morsi’s constitution lacks key democratic principles that allows for the oppression of secular and Christian Egyptians and fails to protect basic human rights,” she said. “The U.S. must hold the Morsi government accountable for its actions and the Obama administration must not simply grant Egypt funds whenever it asks. We must use our aid as leverage to promote democratic reforms, support freedom of religion, and enshrine the protection of minority communities.”

As it has done since the early days of the “Arab spring,” the Obama administration continues to characterize the uprisings that challenged or toppled Arab regimes as having been driven primarily by a desire for democracy rather than a push for stronger Islamist values.

It has done so in the case of Egypt, despite the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, the strong election showing of the Salafists, the Islamist domination of the body that drafted the constitution, and provisions in the constitution itself that elevate shari’a.

Elsewhere, the “Arab spring” has empowered Islamists to varying degrees in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen, while in Syria, Islamists dominate the Western- and Arab-backed opposition forces.

morsi

The outcome of the referendum on Egypt’s new constitution is a victory for President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. (AP Photo, File)

Tuesday’s State Department statement said the U.S. remains committed to helping Egyptians “realize the aspirations that drove their revolution and complete a successful democratic transition.”

“President Morsi, as the democratically elected leader of Egypt, has a special responsibility to move forward in a way that recognizes the urgent need to bridge divisions, build trust, and broaden support for the political process,” Ventrell said. “We have called for genuine consultation and compromise across Egypt’s political divides.”

Those divides have been highlighted in the drafting and now the approval of the constitution, whose opponents included liberal secularists and Coptic Christians.

Evidently fearing a flight of capital from the country in the aftermath of the referendum, the government at the weekend announced that anyone leaving the country could not carry more than $10,000 in foreign cash.

The April 6 Youth Movement, one of the groups that was key in the anti-Mubarak protests but was later increasingly sidelined by Islamists, noted the low referendum turnout and alleged irregularities.

“The percentage of those who voted in favor of the new charter represents less than one third of those who have the right to vote, and that is a very low turnout,” movement co-founder Ahmed Maher told a press conference on Tuesday. “Mass violations have been reported and still need to be investigated. Thus, the constitution lacks popular legitimacy.”

‘A major celebration of democracy’

Among the claimed problems reported in Egyptian media and by human rights groups were irregular polling station hours in different areas, the absence of full judicial supervision, and the barring of civil society monitors from observing the count.

The Muslim Brotherhood disputed the claims, saying Tuesday that according to Justice Ministry officials “the referendum was successful and fair, conducted under full judicial supervision, and … all allegations of violations are merely attempts by certain parties to question a major celebration of democracy in which the whole nation positively participated.”

Prominent opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei told the BBC that Morsi should view the constitution as temporary while negotiations continue. The comment was dismissed by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose secretary-general Mahmoud Hussain told Egypt’s Al-Hayat newspaper that the constitution was “permanent.”

Its approval paves the way for Morsi to announce a date for new parliamentary elections. In the last one, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists between them took about 70 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly, but it was dissolved by a court order.

Until those elections are held the Shura Council, the upper house which since its creation in 1980 has had a purely consultative function (“shura” means “consultative”), has been empowered to pass legislation.

Like the now-dissolved People’s Assembly, the Shura Council is dominated by Islamists.

Its speaker since last February, Ahmed Fahmi, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood party and related to the president by marriage (his son is married to Morsi’s daughter).

Of the council’s 270 members, 90 were appointed by Morsi on December 24. The Muslim Brotherhood highlighted the fact that the newcomers include Copts and women, but 42 of the 90 appointees are Islamist or Islamist-leaning, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Nour, Gama’a Islamiya and the Al-Wasat party, a “moderate” Islamist offshoot of the Brotherhood.

Among legislation the Shura Council is expected to take up is a law to restrict public protests. This will likely occur before January 25 next year – the second anniversary of the start of the anti-Mubarak demonstrations – when non-Islamist groups are planning mass rallies against the new constitution.

“We cannot celebrate the trade of an authoritative regime for an Islamic dictatorship,” U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in response to the referendum outcome.

“Morsi’s constitution lacks key democratic principles that allows for the oppression of secular and Christian Egyptians and fails to protect basic human rights,” she said. “The U.S. must hold the Morsi government accountable for its actions and the Obama administration must not simply grant Egypt funds whenever it asks. We must use our aid as leverage to promote democratic reforms, support freedom of religion, and enshrine the protection of minority communities.”