CAIRO, 24 March 2007 — Back to the future or forward to the past? As Egypt prepares for a constitutional referendum on Monday, the question is hotly debated in Cairo's famous teahouses and arousing passions on opposite sides.
President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 26 years, claims that the proposed reform will speed up the nation's so far hesitant progress toward pluralist politics if not a full-blown democracy.
His critics claim that the referendum will rubber-stamp constitutional amendments designed to consolidate the hold that the armed forces and security services have had on Egyptian politics since the 1952 coup d'etat that toppled the monarchy.
The Bush administration in Washington has expressed some criticism of the proposed reforms without spelling out concrete objections.
What is certain is that the proposed reforms are significant. For, no fewer 34 articles of the constitution are partially rewritten or totally replaced.
On the positive side, the reform will end the state of emergency under which Egypt has lived since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat a quarter of a century ago. On the negative side, it could pave the way for draconian laws to limit political freedoms in the name of counterterrorism.
While secularist and liberal opposition groups have criticized the proposed reforms as a step away from democratization, the most determined opposition has come from the Muslim Brotherhood, a semi-clandestine fraternity that won 88 seats in the 454-seat National Assembly (Parliament) in 2005. The proposed reforms target the Muslim Brotherhood in two ways. First, they make it illegal for any political party or group to be based on religion. This would force the Brotherhood to drop the word Muslim from its name and abandon its old slogan "Islam is the Solution."
Secondly, the reforms would enable the government to stop the Brotherhood and similar Islamist organizations raising funds and establishing welfare networks as a means of recruiting members.
Hoping to avoid a ban, the Brotherhood has taken several steps to placate Mubarak. It has eschewed armed struggle against the state by formally announcing that the security forces have the right to capture or kill anyone bearing unauthorized arms.
Last week the Brotherhood swallowed another bitter pill when the government announced that 34 women have been appointed as judges.
The historic move helps Egypt join the half a dozen Muslim-majority nations where women are admitted into all branches of the judiciary.
Despite years of campaigning to drive women out of the judiciary, the Brotherhood has been forced to tone down its criticism of the government's latest move.
The authorities may use the new constitutional provisions as an excuse to seize the Brotherhood's considerable assets, accumulated over some 80 years of business activities.
Despite the Brotherhood's objections, the idea of banning political parties based on religion appears to have substantial support across Egypt.
Mubarak's liberal and leftist critics support the measure because it forces the Brotherhood, and other Islamist outfits, to fight for votes by offering political programs rather than fomenting religious passions.
The idea that political parties should not be based on religion is gaining ground in much of the Muslim world.
In Turkey, the separation of religion and state was established in the 1920s. Everyone knows that the Justice and Development Party (AKAP), currently in power in Turkey, has an Islamic pedigree. Nevertheless, it is not allowed to mention religion or use religious symbols. Both Algeria and Tunisia have amended their constitutions to prevent the formation of faith-based political parties. Iraq's new democratic constitution also imposes restrictions on the use of religion for party political purposes.
Even in Iran, where the regime calls itself Islamic Republic, parties and groups still tolerated on the margins of political life are not allowed to use religious themes and insignia.
The issue is of greater importance to Egypt where the Coptic Christian community, some 15 percent of the population, feels specially targeted by the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.
Some critics of the proposed reforms oppose the creation of a new electoral commission to replace the panel of judges that has presided over elections since the 1970s.
Supporters of the change, however, claim that the existing method drags judges into political controversy and undermines the dignity of the judiciary. An electoral commission, on the other hand, could be regulated and made accountable under rules fixed by Parliament.
Monday's referendum is likely to be the first of several initiatives to shape Egypt's future in the post-Mubarak era. Theoretically, the president, in his 80s, can remain in power until 2011. Many, however, believe that Mubarak is unlikely to stay at the helm for four more years.
Mubarak admits that Egypt is in transition from an autocratic system to a pluralist one. Many believe that he is grooming his eldest son, Gamal, to succeed him as president.
This may or may not be true. What is certain, however, is that Mubarak is trying to do all he can to prevent a power grab by the Islamists. Over the past quarter of a century, he has defeated a dozen armed groups in one of the longest anti-terrorist wars in modern history. He has also all but dismantled the Soviet-style economic system, created by Gamal Abdul-Nasser who ruled between 1952 and 1969.
The proposed reforms could include a step backward, if future parliaments allocate unsupervised power to the army and the security services in the name of the war on terror. Nevertheless, that need not happen, especially if the democratic opposition continues to capture a greater share of the popular vote in future elections. On balance, the end of the emergency is a positive development, as is the clarification of the relationship between the executive and the legislative. More importantly, the separation of religion from partisan politics is a step in the right direction. Egypt cannot build a democracy by setting the stage for religious wars.
Those who support democratization in Egypt should give the proposed reform qualified support but remain vigilant to ensure free and fair elections in the months and years ahead.