Egypt Forges Ahead With Vote On Referendum

In Egypt, finding politicians to run the country with the requisite experience and who aren't out of favor with the public is a challenge. Whoever ends up running the country, and what kind of powers the president will have, depend on a controversial referendum scheduled for a vote on March 19th.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne, with Linda Wertheimer in Washington, D.C.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, in Cairo.

We've been reporting here on the effort to build democracy in Egypt. The military-backed government that took over this country says it's removing an obstacle to democracy. It has, at least in a formal sense, disbanded the state security agency that spied on and oppressed people. The move comes just before Egyptians vote on a constitution and start political campaigns.

And we're going to talk through all this with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

Hi, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What does it mean to disband an agency whose spies are everywhere?

NELSON: Well, this is a big question that many people have. Certainly this is what protestors wanted. They wanted this agency to go away completely. But many fear this may also just be a word game, if you will, because there's discussion of building a new force that will have similar functions, although it will be less focused on spying on the people.

INSKEEP: So it's going to be a new agency, different name, possibly some of the same people?

NELSON: That is what the great fear is. The feeling is also that this was a carrot that's being offered to Egyptians in order to entice them to the polls this weekend.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. On Saturday now, coming right up just in a few days, Egyptians are supposed to vote on constitutional amendments. About half a dozen have been put together by a panel that was backed by the army. And this is the beginning of a pretty fast-moving process here.

Right after that political campaigns begin, there's a vote for parliament, there's a vote for president - assuming the constitutional changes are approved. This is a lot happening fairly quickly. What are people saying about this?

NELSON: Well, they're very excited about elections but they have a lot of trepidation about elections, especially the fact that they're moving so quickly. They're excited about some of the names that have emerged - people like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohammed ElBaradei and Arab League General Secretary Amr Moussa, as some of the people who've put platforms out there.

But at this one caf´┐Ż that I went to - Horreya cafe, which is very famous for people getting together and having political debates - there was one patron that I spoke to, Fathii Saad, who was one of the many who were expressing how the excitement that they feel over the prospect of elections really is tempered by the fact that it's going to be structured in such a way that perhaps will not allow some of the new voices that are emerging for democracy to be part of it.

Mr. FATHII SAAD: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Saad argues that rushing into elections now is just going to lead to another ruler who's going to control Egypt but not answer to the people. He and many other Egyptians believe time should be given for the revolution's young leaders to form political parties and platforms.

But Egypt's military rulers are in no mood to wait. They are charging ahead with a referendum this Saturday on hastily drawn up constitutional amendments. Khaled Fahmy chairs the history department at the American University in Cairo.

Professor KHALED FAHMY (History, American University): Now as much as we want the army to get out of the picture we also don't want it to rush things so rapidly that what we end up with is a very faulty system.

NELSON: He says even top presidential contenders as ElBaradei and Moussa oppose the constitutional amendments drafted last month by the military's hand-picked experts. The measures would become part of a temporary constitution that the army can use to turn authority over to a civilian government.

But opponents say the amendments have longer-lasting implications because they determine who can run for president and parliament in elections scheduled for later this year. Critics argue the rush only benefits Hosni Mubarak's former colleagues and possibly, a few organized political movements because they're already well established. They, in turn, would get to pick the committee that will draft a permanent constitution.

So in effect, Egypt's military rulers are disenfranchising youth leaders and others responsible for the revolution, Fahmy tells us.

Prof. FAHMY: The way they did the amendments fell far short of what this revolution really stands for, which is basically consultation and true democracy.

NELSON: The army-appointed official overseeing the referendum disagrees.

Mr. MOHAMED ATIYA: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Mohamed Atiya says more than half of Egypt's 80 million citizens will be eligible to vote for or against the amendments. He predicts it will be the first referendum to reflect the real will of the Egyptian people.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson here in Cairo.

Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

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