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Precarious “yes” vote in Egypt

Lukewarm support for the Islamist Constitution means that Morsi must listen to the opposition

The judges having ruled on the numerous complaints filed by the opposition about electoral irregularities, Egypt has at last formally endorsed the draft of an Islamist Constitution. The official results indicate a 63.8-percent “yes” vote in the two rounds taken as a whole, though in Cairo almost 60 percent said “no.” Within another two months, the Egyptians will again go to the polls to elect a parliament.

President Mohamed Morsi and his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, who are now embarked on the first great experiment in government by an Islamist party in an Arab country, would be making a serious mistake were they to take it for granted that the referendum result gives them a free hand. As it now stands, the Constitution of the new Egypt has wings of lead, and will presumably embitter social coexistence and exacerbate the instability of recent months, as well as hindering the recovery of a languishing economy and the reconstruction of Egyptian institutions.

This is so because the new Constitution has been born with far less support than that to be demanded in the case of a supreme law — only a third of the 51 million Egyptians with a right to vote have actually done so — and because its content is disappointing and divisive. The blind obstinacy of Morsi and his fellow Islamists in building a country tailor-made to their desires has resulted in a text that, instead of being drawn up with a maximum of political and social agreement, was hurriedly approved by an overwhelmingly Islamist assembly, which ignored the country’s secular, liberal and moderate Muslim forces, while the president granted dictatorial powers to himself. The result is a Constitution that is manifestly undemocratic in several decisive aspects, such as the interference of religious authorities in legislation, the absence of specific protection for women and religious minorities, and the maintenance of the political and economic privileges enjoyed by the armed forces.

The forces at the helm in Egypt are managing a process of transition that is extremely fragile, while their own illegal, underground existence during decades of repression makes it hard for the Islamists to understand the principle of democratic pluralism. The precariously narrow “yes” vote for the Constitution opens the door to a new phase in which it becomes even more indispensable that the party in power listen to those who oppose it, instead of merely regarding them with contempt. Morsi would do a great favor to his fellow Egyptians by promoting some substantial amendments to the Constitution when it comes before the Senate — the single legislative power, also dominated by the Islamists — in the interval prior to the legislative elections set for spring.