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Young women show their inked fingers after voting in an election that Egyptians hope will usher in a democratic age after decades of dictatorship. (Amr Nabil/Amr Nabil/AP)
Young women show their inked fingers after voting in an election that Egyptians hope will usher in a democratic age after decades of dictatorship. (Amr Nabil/Amr Nabil/AP)

After joyous scenes in Egypt, a constitution battle awaits Add to ...

It was a tumultous ten days in Egypt that started with protests in Tahrir Square and ended with landmark elections that got underway November 28, 2011.

Along the way, dozens of protesters were killed, there were doubts whether elections could still be held, and demands that the Egyptian military hand over complete control to a civilian government immediately.

For many Egyptians and observers, those ten days felt like Revolution 2.0. But scenes of long lines of voters, sometimes waiting five hours or more to vote and polling stations being kept open hours after they were meant to close, would suggest that, for Egypt, the worst is behind it.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges comes shortly after a new parliament is chosen.

When Egyptians are finally done on January 10th, 2012, with the complex, stage-by-stage parliamentary vote that got underway Monday, the next battle will be the country’s constitution.

The new parliament will be tasked with choosing a 100-member constituent assembly whose job will be to draft a new constitution that will essentially be a framework for how powers will be distributed. Egyptians are wary of the strong president/ weak parliament model that ensured Hosni Mubarak’s decades-long rule. The new constitution will also outline the rights of citizens and the protection of minorities; it will decide on the role of Islam in public life, legislation and the economy; and finally, the constitution will have to address the place of the military in the nation’s affairs.

Each issue will mobilize key communities in Egyptian society: the young, internet-savvy activists of Tahrir Square; the Christian minority; the various hues of Islamists; and the military establishment. And there will be flash-points.

Remember, the protests that started in Cairo on November 19th were, in large part, sparked by heavy-handed military police tactics against protesters. But why were the protesters in Tahrir Square and the streets leading to the square to begin with?

Because there had been a growing backlash against the Egyptian army and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the military body that oversees the nominally civilian government currently in place.

A poll of Egyptians taken this autumn, before the protests and violence, found that most Egyptians (41 per cent) felt that the military was working against the gains of the revolution, while only 21 per cent felt that the military was working to advance the gains of the revolution.

Three key issues troubled Egyptians about the military council:

>> The murky and shifting schedule over when exactly the military would hand power over to a civilian government. (The hand-over date finally conceded by the military, after the deaths of at least 41 protesters, is July 2012.)

>> The ongoing use of military tribunals against prominent activists and bloggers.

>> The perception that the military’s opening ‘bargaining position’ on the constitution is basically the same old story: a military establishment that wants to control who drafts the constitution, and to ensure that the military is not subject to civilian oversight and control.

And that is why the outcome of parliamentary elections are so important. Egyptians may not have been talking about the historic parliamentary voting in these exact terms, but whoever controls parliament will have a say in who sits on the constituent assembly and drafts the new constitution that will shape Egypt for decades to come.

That is, in theory, how things should unfold.

Except, presiding over a new parliament and the drafting of a new constitution will be the military council, which will effectively have ‘presidential powers.’ The council will have those powers until the presidential election, which is expected next June. At the time, the council will hand over power to a civilian government.

What will be the dynamic between a newly-elected parliament - with Islamists holding more than 30 per cent of the seats - and the military council? The Islamists have been fiercely vocal about any attempts by the military council to hold on to power, influence the constitutional debate and remain above civilian oversight and control.

And the military council itself has been firm. The head of the military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, told a press conference on the eve of voting: “The position of the armed forces will remain as it is. It will not change in any new constitution.”

The military council is already calculating that the large turn-out of voters in parliamentary elections is a vindication of its role as guardians of the country’s democratic transition.

Maj. Gen. Mukhtar al-Mulla, who is a member of the military council, described the voter turnout as “unprecedented in the history of the Arab world's parliamentary life.”

The ten days that shook Egypt in November have no doubt given way to scenes of joyous, and sometimes frustrated, people exercising their right to vote.

In 2012, Egypt will face another test - the struggle over the country’s constitution, who should shape it, and on what course the country should be set.

Follow on Twitter: @affanchowdhry

 

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