Shashank Bengali: Egypt holds referendum on new constitution
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Egypt on Saturday, a referendum will be held to decide whether or not to adopt a new constitution. A new constitution was one of the demands of protesters that brought down President Mubarak. But most of those protesters are going to vote no on Saturday. Now joining us to tell us why is Shashank Bengali. He covers the Middle East for the McClatchy Newspaper chain. Thanks for joining us.
SHASHANK BENGALI: Good to be with you.
JAY: So why are people likely to–certainly amongst the protesters, likely to vote no?
BENGALI: It’s really a protest, again, at the way in which the constitutional amendments have been put together. The military council’s been ruling Egypt for the last month, since Mubarak stepped down. The president has really issued these amendments by fiat. They basically put together a list of amendments, many of which match what protesters want, although they don’t go far enough in terms of things like curbing presidential powers and things like this. But for the most part, people are unhappy with the way this has gone about. They’ve been–the military has been issuing demands and decrees by their Facebook page. They have not been transparent. They really haven’t been inviting citizens and representatives of the people in to debate with them and meet with them. So people were saying, we don’t want this sort of dictatorial way of doing business.
JAY: It’s kind of ironic, Facebook to Facebook.
BENGALI: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. This is–.
JAY: So if I understand it correctly, most of this took place in secret, in terms of the process of how they came up with the recommendations for the constitution. Then they just announced it. People now just have to vote on it. But in terms of substance, what are the substantive disagreements with the draft constitution?
BENGALI: People, they wanted term limits for the presidency, which is included. It’s not really clear what the curbs on the president’s powers are going to be. There’s a great deal of power vested in the executive body. The biggest problem people see is that they want the old constitution scrapped altogether. There were a number of articles in there that were really upsetting to people over the years, including, you know, the way in which political candidates can be chosen. It’s very biased toward members of the ruling party, of the dominant party in the Parliament. There’s issues about representation in Parliament as well. The people want to start from zero. They don’t want amendments foisted upon them and then they vote up or down on the list. The only problem with this whole thing is people have to vote yes or no on the entire list of amendments and they can’t sort of go one by one. So people, I think–you know, it’s surprising, perhaps, but this constitution will likely go down to a no vote because of the way it’s been carried out so far.
JAY: So then what would happen? Is there a process?
BENGALI: There isn’t really a process. The military, again, has been so secretive about all this. Clearly, there’s a six-month period that we’re going to–we’re now in the first month of this, where the military said they will pave the way to new elections. The first step in that is the Constitution. So I would imagine, if this goes down to a no vote, they’d have to start fresh and create a new raft of amendments. Now, the military has a great deal of leeway. They can choose to do this a different way if they want: they can choose to scrap the Constitution and write a new list of amendments; they can choose to put these amendments to an individual yes or no vote. There’s a great deal of autonomy, because we’re working in a system of martial law right now.
JAY: It’s an interesting sense of the level of sophistication of the opposition movement that they can say no and that they’re demanding a process that, you know, we want to imagine what a new Egypt looks like, I guess, is what they’re saying.
BENGALI: That’s right. This is really a continuing story of the civil society and democratic politics really kind of having a new birth in Egypt. You’ve got a very fragmented, a very disorganized, chaotic opposition movement, but they’ve been able to agree on a number of key things, beginning with Mubarak leaving, and they’ve succeeded so far.
JAY: Now, another part of this movement that doesn’t get a lot of media coverage is what’s been happening with the workers. There’s been a lot of strikes. There’s a national movement for a minimum wage. And if understand it correctly, this has been one of–the backbone of the overall movement. So talk a bit about what’s been happening post-Mubarak.
BENGALI: Sure. Well, the workers, you know, really are credited with sort of building the backbone of the protest movement from the beginning. Back in 2008, even before that, worker strikes sort of paved the way for civil disobedience rather in Egypt. What’s happening now is that the workers feel that their demands for better working conditions, better pay, were not met by Mubarak stepping down and the military taking over. So for days and weeks after the change in regime, we’ve seen workers, police officers, transport workers, all manner of public and private employees take to the streets. And they’ve been sort of fewer in number in recent weeks, but their demands have not been met by any means.
JAY: So this confrontation with the military is going to continue.
BENGALI: I think so. I think the military’s yet to say how they plan to deal with issues like workers rights. They probably won’t, because they–you know, their goal is to move beyond this transitional period. But clearly there’s a great deal of dissatisfaction with the way the military’s working so far, and the workers are at the core of that dissatisfaction.
JAY: Thanks for joining us.
BENGALI: My pleasure.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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