Protests Continue In Egypt Over Draft Constitution

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi says he's determined to hold a referendum on the draft constitution on Dec. 15. But it's an election fraught with problems for him and his opponents. It's unlikely to be a free and fair vote, with most judges who would be the ones to serve as independent monitors being on strike, leaving its legitimacy in doubt. His opponents, meanwhile, are in trouble if they decide to boycott the vote or not. Not voting gives Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood a guaranteed victory. But if opponents do vote and lose, then their efforts to quash the draft document and Morsi's power grab would lose legitimacy.

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In Egypt, there were more demonstrations over the country's draft constitution today. A nationwide vote on the document begins tomorrow.

The Egyptian government claims it provides a badly needed roadmap for the country, but many critics say the draft constitution was hastily concocted, and they say it was written mainly by Islamists. Supporters and detractors alike expect Egyptian voters to approve the new constitution, but critics are warning it will just create another crisis.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Cairo.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Egyptians have had little time to digest the 234-article draft constitution unveiled in late November. No one was even sure until this week that there would be a referendum on the document given the ongoing political upheaval. But the constitution's Islamist proponents lost no time in recent days launching into campaign mode to get out the yes vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

NELSON: In the industrial enclave of Helwan, south of Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood and its partners held a rally with fireworks last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)

NELSON: Those who attended were bombarded with songs like this one claiming Egypt will slip into chaos without this constitution. The song promised it would empower Egyptians and force the government to be accountable to them. Judge Waleed el-Sharabi, who is a spokesman for a group of pro-government judges who've agreed to supervise the elections, says the new constitution will eliminate what's left of Hosni Mubarak's regime.

JUDGE WALEED EL-SHARABI: (Through Translator) It's a symbolic death sentence for any remnants of Mubarak's political party. They will be isolated from political life.

NELSON: Promises of higher pay, more jobs and economic and political stability also resonated at the Helwan rally.

MOUSTAFA EL-WAKIL: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: One of the organizers, Moustafa el-Wakil, says people want to know they will be taken care of in the new constitution, but the document's many critics say it is flawed. They argue that it fails to adequately protect the rights of Egyptian women and minorities and opens the door to Islamic scholars interfering in politics and law. The critics add the new constitution also leaves too much power in the hands of the military and presidency.

Khaled Fahmy chairs the history department at The American University in Cairo.

KHALED FAHMY: Instead of having a sober, careful, calm societal debate about the cardinal text that would govern us for years, the Islamist government is shoving down our throats a text that has many loopholes, falls way short of our expectations and maintains a lot of the draconian measures of the previous constitution.

NELSON: The government rush to get the document passed is also causing problems. Many judges tasked with supervising the referendum are boycotting the polls. That's forcing Egyptian election officials to split the vote into two stages. Egyptian political parties say they will send observers to polling stations to monitor for violations, but Western observers who were present during other Egyptian elections over the past year say they won't come, even though the government recently announced they would be welcome.

LES CAMPBELL: You'd be walking into a situation where it would be very difficult to be perceived as neutral or independent.

NELSON: That's Les Campbell, who is the Middle East and North Africa director at the National Democratic Institute. Campbell says it will be impossible for Westerners to monitor the vote in a meaningful way without knowing ahead of time how the referendum will work, where votes will be cast or the ballots counted. He adds it would make more sense to delay the poll.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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