Keynote speech: International Observation of Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum – Challenges Ahead


Dear panelists and honourable guests,

I would like to welcome you all to this extremely timely and important conference. It is very important that we do not forget Egypt and that we keep on supporting the country, and particularly its citizens, on their path towards democracy.

I am the President of a human rights organisation called the First Step Forum, and I visit Egypt regularly and have also taken stock of its democratic reforms, particularly with regard to minority rights and religious freedom. My introductory remarks will be divided in a number of points:

1) An overview on the changes in the constitution

2) The reaction by the European Parliament

3) Problems identified by international observers

4) Recommendations to Egypt

5) Recommendations to the EU

6) Conclusions

Let me commence by giving a short overview and of the events around the referendum on the constitutional amendments in Egypt:

The voting on the constitutional referendum took place on 14 and 15 January 2014. It was an attempt to bring legitimacy to the political developments since the July 2013 ousting of President Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected President. In the months that followed, there was widespread turmoil across Egypt, protestors demanding the repeal of the articles that had Islamist undertones. The interim government’s response was amending the constitution.

Many, including Carnegie International and the Carter Center, have criticised organisations that observed the referendum for the fact that it would legitimise a coup and undermine a democratic process, and thus it would be a legitimisation of an undemocratic process in Egypt.

The EU agreed to send a mission to observe the referendum, even though it has raised concerns with the Egyptian regime. High Representative Ashton stated that ”ahead of the constitutional referendum (…) I would like to reassure the Egyptian people that the EU continues to support them in fulfilling the aspirations of the January 2011 revolution.” The EU agreed on the mission, because ”Egypt remains an important partner to the European Union. The European Union continues to support the democratic aspirations of the people in Egypt.”

Now, what were the changes in the new constitution, and are they any good?

Amendments to the constitution include more rights and freedoms, greater autonomy for the military, judiciary and the possibility to withdraw confidence from the President. Ahram Online prepared a comparison between the current draft and the previous constitution, and I would like to highlight a number of points in it. Alterations were included in the parts on:

    • The role of religion in legislation
    • The authority of the country’s military
    • The system of governance
    • Rights and freedoms of Egyptian citizens

The role of Islam and religion

  • The 2012 constitution by the Islamist-dominated panel, was criticised for defining the principles of Islamic Sharia law broadly, and added Art 219, which opened the door for stricter interpretations of Sharia.
  • Another controversial article in the 2012 constitution gave clerics a say over the meaning of the principles of Sharia.
  • The amended constitution kept the second article stating that the principles of Sharia are the main source of legislation and left out the contentious Art 219, which, in my opinion, is a positive development;
  • Moreover, the preamble of the amended constitution now states ”We are writing a constitution that completes building a modern democratic state with a civilian government”, which implies that Egypt is neither religious nor military by nature.


The military

  • The new constitution gives the military more powers, as a transitional article was added requiring the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) over the appointment of the defence minister. Some say this may lead to the immunisation of the army chief and the defence minister.
  • An article allowing military trials over civilians was added in the 2012 constitution and kept in the amended 2013 version, though it is now more restrictive and specifies more clearly the crimes to which the law applies. This, in my opinion, is rather worrisome.

Rights and freedoms

  • The new constitution is considered to provide more rights and freedoms in general, particularly for women, the media and minorities. The amended constitution states explicitly that women are equal to men, allowing them to hold official and judicial posts;
  • New articles criminalise torture, discrimination and arbitrary forced displacement, from which Christians have suffered in times of sectarian strife – a change which made me of course very happy.
  • The new constitution also prescribes the state must abide by international human rights agreements, which it has signed.
  • The new constitution prohibits political parties based on religion, which have an impact on parties founded after the January 25 uprising, including the Salafist Nour party and the MB Freedom and Justice Party. This led to the listing of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, which is also worrisome.

System of governance

  • The amendments to Chapter 5 give parliament the right to withdraw confidence from the president; a right which was absent from the previous constitution, and which is a positive development towards a system of checks and balances.
  • The amendments also give the President the power to choose certain powerful ministers in the event a majority party in parliament nominates the prime minister; the effects of this remain to be seen.
  • The amended articles also give parliament the right to impeach the president if he breaches the provisions of the constitution, a power not found in the 2012 constitution, and a positive development in my opinion;
  • One of the most significant changes is the appointment of the Prosecutor-General; while in the 2012 charter the President was tasked with appointing him, the 2013 amendments explicitly state that the Supreme Judicial Council now possesses this power.

The European Parliament also reacted to the new constitution with its February 2014 resolution.

The resolution stated, among other things, the following:

  • The referendum had a relatively low turnout
  • Criticism of the political process in Egypt, it stated that: ”The run-up to the referendum was marred by acts of violence and the harassment and arrest of activists campaigning for a no vote” –  such actions led to a ”one-sided public debate ahead of the referendum”
  • The resolution also welcomed the ”positive elements” in the new constitution, which included:
    • Fundamental freedoms
    • Human rights
    • The protection of minorities
    • The protection of women’s rights
  • We however, condemned the articles relating to the armed forces and its lack of civilian oversight and the constitution’s restriction of freedom of religious worship to the followers of the three Abrahamic religions as well as ”excessive force against protesters” and the crackdown on journalists.
  • The resolution also mentioned that both the Muslim Brotherhood and interim government are inciting against one another. It also highlighted the increased sectarian attacks on Coptic churches following Morsi’s ouster and ”acts of terrorism and violent attacks against security forces”
  • We MEPs also called upon the Egyptian authorities to fully and effectively implement the new constitution’s ”provisions on fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of assembly, association and expression, and human rights”.
  • The Egyptian Foreign Ministry rejected much of the resolution, but it was important in showing that despite the fact that the content of the constitution improved, we should not close our eyes of the events around it.

Based on a number of referendum observation missions, including the one by Transparency International, which I have looked at in particular, we can identify a number of problems that occurred during the election days and in the campaign:

1) The government clearly campaigned or support of the constitutional amendments, while other groups that campaigned against the constitution either did not receive support of faced restrictions from the authorities, including repression, arrest and imprisonment.

2) Media coverage in state and private media was largely one-sided, and public officials openly took position for a ”yes” vote in the referendum during our meetings.

3) Politically motivated violence, intimidation and repression from state and non-state actors limited and conditioned citizens’ political and electoral participation.

4) The regulations on political campaign financing are weak and generally unknown;

5) Political party-affiliated poll watchers and some civil society observers were not allowed access to monitor polling or faced heavy scrutiny.

6) Political parties and civil society organisations voiced a concern about inaction or selective investigation of alleged electoral violations.

7) There was limited time and civic education made available to learn and debate the constitutional draft.

8) The integrity of the voter list or registry raises concerns among many actors, even though listing was improved from the previous times.

9) The decisions such as enabling citizens under certain conditions to vote at places other than their place of registry was a positive development, but raised concerns of possible double voting.

10) The range of 1,500-2,000 voters per polling station seems too high and led to two-day balloting and generated concerns about the overnight control and custody of the ballot boxes and materials.

11) The ink applied was easily removable, raising concerns about its ability to ensure the principle of one person, one vote.

12) The newly established electoral management body (High Election Committee) the judges of which observe polling committees lacked skills and experience. Lack of consistency in decision-making and arrangement of materials left issues to discretion of judges.

13) The role of assistants at the polling stations and other electoral administrators raised suspicion, because many hailed from the civil service.

For this reason, the Egyptian government should do at least the following:

  1. The roles and mandate of the government need better definitions with regard to elections, and the Higher Election Committee should take a larger role;
  2. All parties and civil society activists should have access to media;
  3. A more peaceful democratic space for debate should be developed in order to build trust and consensus in Egypt;
  4. Develop a law on campaign financing, which ensures transparency on public and private financing of politics and elections;
  5. Greater access to all stages and counting processes to civil society actors, media and parties
  6. Create complaints mechanisms and procedures for the investigation and prosecution of electoral crimes;
  7. Enough time and instruments for informed voting as well as election planning and procedures;
  8. Greater transparency and independent audits;
  9. Lowering the number of voters per polling station and measures to reduce lines and polling to just one day;
  10. Upgrade the ink quality – which sounds silly but is very important
  11. The capabilities and technical support of the Electoral Management Body officials should be upgraded and ensure the access of officials to training and creation of a code of conduct.

I also have some recommendations to the EU from an MEPs point of view.

If I have to choose, I will choose for the new constitution. It is important that everyone can live in accordance with their own conscience and lifestyle without, of course, harming others. At the same time, I strongly believe in national reconciliation and the inclusion of all actors in political and public life.

No government, which is artificially sustained without wide-ranging public support has a bright future ahead. Egypt is the most influential Arab state, and it will be more influential if it manages to build on pluralism and inclusion of all political spectrums, people of all genders and of all ages. Therefore, EU policy should focus on the promotion of pluralism in particular.

I don’t want to be too soft on the new regime: A lot of money has come in from the Gulf, but this has had no visible impact. The government and President have no policy: no recovery plan, no inclusion plan for the opposition, no health plan, no education plan. The only plan we have seen is an economic plan, but the content is quite vague.

As the EU, we should focus on human rights and not fall into the trap of mingling in internal politics. The Egyptians do not seem too eager to receive European help, and we should not beg for it. The best way is on an individual basis – such by organising MEP delegation visits and civil society trainings. Contacts between European and Egyptian NGOs should be promoted. I, for example, organised a youth training with the First Step Forum in November, which was highly successful.

As for the upcoming elections, it looks like there will be no anti-campaign or real opposition campaign, which gives an indication that the elections won’t be fair and democratic. There is an immense risk that observers will be manipulated by the Egyptian press to say it all went well. However, it is important we keep Egypt close rather than far, and cooperate in a spirit of mutual trust. All in all, it is important that the Egyptians decide for themselves whether or not a result reflects reality, and we as the EU can only support with technicalities.


The biggest problem with this constitution was that most people did not vote yes because they approved of the constitution itself; they voted yes because they believed that it would give Al-Sisi the legitimacy to crack down on the Islamists. The improvements in the content should of course be applauded.

The challenges ahead are basically the same as those that confronted the old Islamist regime, i.e. inflation, unemployment, societal stability. Workers across the country are on strike (including doctors, teachers, factory workers), which causes further concern. Egyptians are also faced with a new wave of terrorist attacks across the country, which are supposedly orchestrated by Islamist loyalists. Dozens of innocent political activists and scholars are in jail for allegedly supporting the former regime – many of these accusations are false, and a freedom of opinion should be granted.

It is very worrisome that civil society and young people are completely alienated and unrepresented: the majority of the people who boycotted the constitution were young people, who want neither an Islamist or a military regime. They gave up and no longer feel that their voice matters. Universities are also finding it hard to function because there are protests all across different universities in the country forcing them to shut down every few months.

Everyone is now awaiting Al-Sisi to declare his call for presidency and he is likely to win with an overwhelming majority if he decided to run. However, there is much criticism over the expected declaration because of his military rank – all of Egypt’s former presidents were from the military, and people seem to want change;

The EU must remain a close partner to Egypt and support any government that comes into power, otherwise the population will become sceptical about the EU’s actions, the same way the majority of the population is now against the US because of the perceived support for the former Islamist regime.

With these perspectives in mind, I provide my support for balanced, technical monitoring, which ensures civil society participation.

Share Button


Sähköpostiosoitettasi ei julkaista. Pakolliset kentät on merkitty *