CAIRO — Egypt's transition to democracy after 30 years of authoritarian rule faces a major test on Saturday when Egyptians vote in a referendum on amendments to the constitution. Opponents are pushing heavily for a "no" vote, saying the changes don't go far enough and that the ruling military is rushing the process.
If the changes are rejected, the military will have to go back to the drawing board and may extend the six-month deadline it had set for handing over power to an elected civilian government.
A "yes" vote could mean parliamentary and presidential elections to be held before the end of the year. But critics say that timeframe is too rushed and will only benefit the party of ousted President Hosni Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two largest and best organized political forces in the country.
Regardless of the outcome, the referendum gives Egyptians their first taste in decades of a free vote and will likely be remembered as a milestone in Egypt's road to democracy after Mubarak's 29 years in power. Under Mubarak, elections and referendums were plagued by widespread vote fraud to ensure regime victories.
Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11 after 18 days of unprecedented popular protests. Since then, the country of 80 million has been struggling with the shift to democratic rule, with the ruling military overwhelmed by an explosion of protests, strikes, sectarian violence and a surge in crime.
As it pushes for a quick transfer of power, the military has been the target of growing international scrutiny for alleged human rights violations that include torturing and beating detainees and the use of military courts to try civilians without due judicial process.
The proposed amendments include a limit on presidents to two, four-year terms and allow independents and opposition members to run for the country's highest office, ending what had been heavy restrictions on who could be a candidate for president. The changes also ban anyone who has dual nationality, one foreign parent or a foreign wife from running.
The amendments would restore full judicial supervision of elections, seen as key to preventing fraud. They also put limits on the emergency laws that have been in place for 30 years and give police near unlimited powers: Under the new rules, a referendum would be required to extend emergency law beyond six months.
Voters in Saturday's referendum will be asked to cast ballots to say 'yes' or 'no' to the entire package of nine changes.
The proposed amendments, drawn up by a panel of legal scholars appointed by the military, are intended to bring just enough change to the current constitution – which the military suspended after coming to power – to ensure that upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are free and fair.
But critics say that doesn't go far enough. They contend the entire constitution must be scrapped and a new one drawn up to guarantee that Egypt is spared future dictators. Egypt has been ruled by men of military backgrounds since 1952 and the current constitution outlines a system that puts overwhelming power in the hands of the president.
The proposed amendments "are a step in the right direction, but they are not the end of the road," Waleed el-Koumi, one of the activists behind the 18-day uprising that forced Mubarak to step down, said of the amendments. "The aim is for us to have a new constitution."
Many in Egypt complain that six months is too short a time to introduce meaningful change and weed out remnants of the former regime. Others suspect the military is eager to get out of the business of governing Egypt before its own reputation gets tainted by perceived failure to solve the country's endless problems.
"No one wants the military to stay in power for a long time and the military itself does not want to stay in power longer than necessary," said Nadim Mansour, a political analyst and human rights activist with Egypt's Hisham Mubarak Center.
Some also believe the relatively short time allowed for the two elections would enable the remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood to sweep parliamentary elections at the expense of dozens of new parties born out of the anti-Mubarak uprising.
These fears have found resonance with Egypt's top pro-reform activist, Nobel laureate and former head of the U.N. atomic watchdog agency Mohamed ElBaradei, who intends to run for president.
"We are at a decisive period in Egypt's history," he told a private TV station last week. "We shouldn't rush. Everything should be on a solid basis ... I can't rule Egypt for one day under this constitution."
Political analyst Amr Hamzawy laments that the legal experts assigned by the military to draft the amendments worked in virtual secrecy and complains that amending a constitution that is widely opposed for giving the executive branch too much powers would annul a key goal of the Jan.25-Feb.11 uprising.
"The amendments were rushed," he said. "Being asked to vote on the entire package of amendments rather than each one does not reflect the popular will," he said.
Mohammed Hassanein Abdelaal, one of the legal experts who drafted the amendments, said the debate in Egypt was not so much about the changes they proposed but on whether the country should have done away with the entire process and instead focused on writing a new constitution.
He, however, argued that the changes made it obligatory for the next legislature to elect a panel to draft a new constitution within the first six months of its inaugural session. He argued that that addresses the demands for greater change.
But critics maintain that a general election this summer would produce an "unbalanced" legislature that would in turn elect an unbalanced panel tasked with drafting a new constitution.
"We still have time to persuade the military to cancel the referendum, if not we can at least work for a 'no' vote," said Israa Abdel-Fattah, a prominent political activist. "If the constitution is illegitimate, then the amendments are illegitimate too. There is no such thing as a de facto situation."