Egyptian Vote Brings Concerns About Sectarianism, Rise of Muslim Brotherhood

By Patrick Goodenough | March 22, 2011 | 4:36 AM EDT

Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badi casts his vote at a polling station in Cairo in Egypt’s referendum on constitutional amendments. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

( – Egypt’s controversial Muslim Brotherhood edged closer to a dominant role in the Arab world’s biggest country this week, with victory in a referendum on a package of constitutional reforms backed by the Islamist group, but opposed by Egypt’s emerging pro-democracy opposition.

Although the package includes some important reforms, such as limiting presidential powers and tenure, it also paves the way for a rapid move to presidential and legislative elections, a situation that benefits established groups like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

More than 77 percent of Egyptians who took part in the referendum voted in favor of the package, according to official results. Turnout exceeded 40 percent, much higher than the norm in Egyptian elections.

The “yes” camp in the weekend referendum was strongly identified with Islamists as well as the NDP.

The more liberal and secular activists, including youth leaders who spearheaded the protests leading to President Hosni Mubarak’s Feb. 11 resignation, called for a “no” vote. They argued instead for a completely new constitution and a longer transitional period ahead of national elections.

The “no” camp included two prospective presidential candidates, former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League.

Also campaigning for a “no” vote were the leaders of the Coptic Christian minority, which has faced years of harassment and attacks and are concerned about a future Egypt dominated by radical Muslims.

The religious divide evident during the referendum campaign has prompted concerns about sectarianism.

“Many Muslims voted ‘yes’ to insure the continuation of Islamic rule, while many Copts voted ‘no’ to abolish this,” the Al Ahram newspaper’s online edition quoted Ahram Center for Strategic Studies senior researcher Diaa Rashwan as saying. “If things continue this way during the parliamentary elections, Egypt is really under threat.”

Many Copts had hoped that proposed reforms would include the removal of the 1971 constitution’s article II, which reads, “Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is its official language. Principles of Islamic law (Shari’a) are the principal source of legislation.”

But a committee set up under a military-appointed chairman to consider constitutional changes ruled out any amendment to article II.

The head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, asked the government to amend the article to include a reference to non-Muslim minorities.

But the cleric regarded as the top authority in Sunni Islam, Al-Azhar University head Ahmad al-Tayyeb, said Monday the article should be left alone, telling the official MENA news agency any change would affect Egypt’s Islamic identity.

Although formally banned since the 1950s, the MB developed an impressive organization, and is well-placed to campaign strongly across the country – including in rural areas where more conservative ideas hold sway.

Sensitive to criticism inside and outside the country about an Islamist takeover, the MB says it does not seek power or even a majority in parliament, even though it believes a majority is achievable. It also says it will not put up a candidate for president.

Its new “Freedom and Justice Party” will be separate and independent from the Brotherhood, with membership open to all Egyptians, MB chairman Mohammed Badi said in an interview posted on the organization’s Web site this week.

“We do not seek it [a parliamentary majority] because the threat of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover is still used as a scarecrow for foreign powers to keep meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs,” he said.

Despite the attempts to present a more palatable face, the MB has not dropped its insistence that neither a women nor a Christian should be eligible to run for president of Egypt.

Among the constitutional reforms approved in the referendum, a presidential hopeful will be able to get onto the ballot either by being nominated by a party represented in parliament; by winning the endorsement of 30 members of parliament; or by obtaining the signatures of 30,000 citizens.

Elections are supervised by the judiciary, the president may serve a maximum of two four-year terms, and must appoint a vice-president. (Mubarak was president for 30 years, winning uncontested “referendums” on his candidacy in 1981, 1987, 1993, 1999, and one purportedly multi-candidate election in 2005.)

The Obama administration welcomed the referendum, calling it a significant achievement.

“Seeing so many Egyptians exercise their newly won freedom is a cause for optimism, and it will provide a foundation for further progress as the Egyptians continue to build a democratic future,” national security advisor Tom Donilon told a press briefing in Brazil on Sunday.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner acknowledged Monday that some people have voiced misgivings about elements of the referendum.

“But on the whole, we feel that it did a great deal in setting the stage in – for a democratic progress,” he said.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow