Egyptian voters return to the polls this weekend for a second round of voting on a controversial new constitution. Less than two years after a broad, unwieldy alliance of Islamists and secular groups brought down the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, those same factions are now engaged in a bitter fight over the political and cultural future of the country. Kojo talks with Egyptian-American journalists and academics about the stakes in Cairo and Washington.


  • Samer Shehata Assistant Professor of Arab Politics, Georgetown University
  • Ashraf Khalil Journalist; and author of "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation" (St. Martin's Press)


  • 13:06:37

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.

  • 13:06:59

    MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, Food Wednesday. Looking for the perfect gift for people who like to cook? We've got recommendations. But first Egyptian voters return to the polls this weekend for a second round of voting on a controversial post-revolutionary constitution. It will likely pass, but few expect the referendum to bring unity to that country. Less than two years ago a broad, but unwieldy alliance of Islamists and secular groups brought down the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.

  • 13:07:28

    MR. KOJO NNAMDINow, those same factions are now engaged in a bitter fight over the political future of the country and the constitution stands at the center of that debate. Joining us to discuss it by phone from Cairo is Ashraf Khalil. He's a journalist and author of "Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation." And joining us from studios here in Washington at Georgetown University is Samer Shehata.

  • 13:07:57

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe is a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. Samer Shehata, I'll start with you. The first round of voting on the new constitution took place last weekend. It's a controversial document. Why?

  • 13:08:10

    MR. SAMER SHEHATAWell, it's controversial for at least two reasons. It's controversial because the process of writing the constitution was not seen as being legitimate by large numbers of Egyptians. It was largely Islamists who made up the 100-person constituent body that wrote up the constitution. And in fact the relatively few liberal, secular, Christian members withdrew in protest. So for process reasons, but also for content reasons.

  • 13:08:44

    MR. SAMER SHEHATAAnd as you implied at the beginning a moment ago, not only for what is inside the constitution that is seen to empower Islamists or to include more Islam in politics, but also for the possibilities of moving down that direction in the future. So I think for those two reasons at least it's a very contentious issue.

  • 13:09:07

    NNAMDIWho was left out? Who was not included in developing this new constitution?

  • 13:09:13

    SHEHATAWell, I mean, you know, as I said the 100-member constituent body was elected by members of parliament. And of course parliament was dominated by Islamists of different stripe, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Salafi. So there were some, but again, a minority presence of--and this is the answer to your question directly--liberals, secular voices, Christians, as well as women and I would also say youth were largely marginalized from the constitution writing process.

  • 13:09:48

    SHEHATAAnd of course, it is those segments of society that are voting no, opposed to the constitution and are objecting to the legitimacy of the entire process.

  • 13:10:02

    NNAMDIOur number is 800-433-8850. If you have questions or comments about what's currently going on in Egypt over the constitution. Have you been following the events in Egypt? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Ashraf Khalil, we saw protests a few weeks back after President Morsi was seen to be taking power away from the judiciary, a position he later rolled back. And there were fresh protests yesterday. Can you talk about that? Who's in the streets now and why?

  • 13:10:37

    MR. ASHRAF KHALILWell, it's actually a very diverse group of people in the streets now. That's one of the side effects of President Morsi's constitutional decree on November 22 that really started this whole drama rolling. Now, when he did that, when he sidelined the judiciary and granted himself, you know, expansive new powers and (unintelligible) constitution from the (unintelligible) galvanized the opposition. They have shown (unintelligible)

  • 13:11:27

    NNAMDIAshraf, please allow me to interrupt. Your connection is not very good. We're going to try to get you on a better connection, even as we continue the conversation and invite phone calls at 800-433-8850. You can also send email to Samer Shehata, you note that the issue isn't really the constitution. It's really about Egypt's future. Can you talk a little bit about what's at stake?

  • 13:11:57

    SHEHATAWell, that's correct, Kojo. I mean, I think it's relatively fair to say that one of the most important themes that Egyptians have been grappling with since the ouster of Mubarak on February 11, 2011 has been Egypt's future and more specifically the relationship between religion and state and particularly Islam and state or Islam and government in Egypt. And of course, the most significant polarization that has taken place in Egypt in this constitutional referendum and previous parliamentary elections and so on has been that between Islamists and non-Islamist force.

  • 13:12:43

    SHEHATABetween the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as different Salafi groups and Salafi political parties and then the liberal, secular voices, the revolutionary youth, the ones who were really behind the January 25, 2011 protests, as well as the significant Christian, non-Muslim population in Egypt. That's been really the major division. And that sees itself manifest in the split about the constitution.

  • 13:13:14

    NNAMDIYou note, Samer, that the turnout was relatively low in this vote, just 57 percent. Why is that significant?

  • 13:13:21

    SHEHATAWell, actually, the 57 percent that you site is the percentage of people who voted yes for the constitution in the first round last Saturday, December the 15th. The turnout, though, as you rightly indicated was also really surprisingly low, about 33, 34 percent turnout. And I think both of those figures are interesting. One, the 57 percent demonstrates that this is a divisive issue. After all, Egyptians are voting about the foundational political document, a constitution that is going to hopefully, in theory at least, something that is not going to be changed every year.

  • 13:14:02

    SHEHATAThey're not voting in local council elections or for school board. This is a very significant issue that they're dealing with. And one would have hoped that by law it would have taken a two-thirds majority for it to have passed and that that would have occurred. But this 57 percent represents how divisive this is and unfortunately, by law, the constitution only needed 50 percent plus one, which, you know, I think is not wise.

  • 13:14:30

    SHEHATABut the 33 percent also is somewhat surprising and it's not really clear what the explanation for that is. Egyptians certainly are probably suffering from a little bit of election fatigue. I think I counted six national elections since Mr. Mubarak's ouster. There was one in March 2011 about some constitutional amendments. There were several rounds of voting for parliament for the lower house, several rounds of voting for the lower house of parliament. Then, of course, there were the presidential elections last summer in two rounds. So I think there's probably some fatigue, in terms of Egyptians going out to the polls every couple of months.

  • 13:15:13

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Samer Shehata. He is a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, about the controversy over the constitution in Egypt and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What are your thoughts on the new constitution? 800-433-8850 or send an email to Samer, voting is being held in two stages, last weekend and then this weekend. What is expected this weekend?

  • 13:15:41

    SHEHATAWell, it's expected this weekend, because the governorates or provinces in Egypt that are allowed to vote this coming Saturday are mostly rural, that's outside of Cairo and Alexandria and the Nile Delta, that the yes vote's going to be higher even than it was before. So I think no one in Egypt expects the constitution to be voted down. Just generally, referendums, it's harder to get a no vote than a yes vote. And in this case because of the political alignments I think everyone expected the constitution to pass, but what people didn't expect was the relatively low support for it.

  • 13:16:22

    SHEHATABut, yes, this Saturday, December the 22nd, 17 governorates out of Egypt's 27 are going to vote. The others voted last Saturday. And I think it's going to be a higher yes turnout then the 57 percent we saw last week.

  • 13:16:37

    NNAMDII'd you to share your thoughts on the media coverage in this country, in general, on what's been taking place in Egypt.

  • 13:16:45

    SHEHATAWell, of course, you know, for the last couple of weeks for some legitimate reasons there has been all kinds of domestic issues, the fiscal cliff, the tragedy, a senseless tragedy witnessed, that has kind of distracted from international coverage. But generally I would say, you know, the coverage has been reasonable. There is one element of the coverage, coverage as well as some of the Op-Ed writing, that really has not been reasonable and I think has fallen short.

  • 13:17:16

    SHEHATAAnd to preface what I'm going to say, I'd like to say that, of course, Mr. Morsi deserves a great deal of criticism I think and the constitution, I’m certainly not in favor of it. If I was in Egypt last Saturday I would have voted no for the constitution. But that being said, some of the coverage, some of the op-eds have been unfairly or biased in their depiction of some of Mr. Morsi's actions and maybe the Muslim Brotherhood generally.

  • 13:17:47

    SHEHATAI mean, there's certainly a segment out there that, you know, wants to cover the group in the most negative light possible. So for example, there were all kinds of comparisons after his constitutional declaration to him and Mr. Mubarak or a kind of new authoritarianism being set up and so on. And I think there's no truth to that whatsoever. I mean there were reasons for his constitutional declaration giving himself greater power. I disagree with them, but there's a logic there that could be argued and so on.

  • 13:18:21

    SHEHATASo I think there has been somewhat, by some individuals for political reasons, excessive criticism unfairly excessive criticism of Mr. Morsi. However that being said, like I said before, this is not to excuse him. I mean I and members of my family and friends and so on who are voting no for the constitution.

  • 13:18:42

    NNAMDIBut, you know, when we hear judiciary, we think of a neutral judicial body. You make the point that there are a lot of Mubarak holdovers in the judiciary.

  • 13:18:52

    SHEHATAWell, that's correct, especially in the Supreme Constitutional Court. And not just in the judiciary, in large segments of the Egyptian polity, in the Ministry of Interior, in the Ministry of Defense. And Mr. Morsi got rid of some of them, but there are certainly people who were an integral part of the hardcore of the Egyptian deep state supporting Mr. Mubarak. And of course, many of the members of the Supreme Constitutional Court were allies or supporters of Mr. Mubarak and have really not played the role that, as you said, we would hope that a judiciary would play, independent, but have really tried to impede any kind of change or democratic development in Egypt.

  • 13:19:34

    SHEHATAAs you know, they dissolved the lower house of parliament, which was democratically elected on a technicality. And they were about to dissolve the constituent assembly before he made his decree. Why this is complicated of course is because--I disagreed with the makeup of the constituent assembly but, there was a politics driving their likely decision to dissolve it. And so, you know, unfortunately things have been very messy in Egypt. It has not been a smooth transition to democracy or democratic consolidation. There has been this polarization.

  • 13:20:16

    SHEHATAAnd unfortunately as a result of the constitution, as a result of the process that took place in writing of the constitution I think this polarization, this deep division between Islamists and non-Islamists is going to continue. And that's not something that is healthy for a democratic consolidation and transition.

  • 13:20:37

    NNAMDIWell, for those people who say, look this constitution is expected to pass. What's going to happen next? Well, next apparently there's an election coming after the constitutional vote. And you make the point that secular and other religious groups besides the Muslim Brotherhood have an opportunity of sorts there. Can you explain?

  • 13:20:55

    SHEHATAWell, that's completely correct. I mean, they did quite poorly in the parliamentary elections in the past getting barely 20 percent. And one of the reasons was because -- there were many -- but is because they were divided among themselves. Of course on the other side of that the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood have been organized and active and in local communities for decades laying the groundwork and foundation for politics.

  • 13:21:19

    SHEHATABut there is an opportunity for secular liberal youth and so on now that they have seen this and experienced this divisive process to unify. Because they have unified in something called the National Salvation Front to oppose the constitution -- the constitution limits. And if they can carry that forward in the parliamentary elections that are set to take place 60 days after the constitution is passed then possibly the configuration of the Egyptian legislature can be more balanced. And secular liberal Christian youth voices, women also, can be more equitably fairly represented.

  • 13:21:58

    NNAMDISamer Shehata is a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:22:04

    SHEHATAIt's been my pleasure, Kojo.

  • 13:22:06

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, looking for the perfect gift for someone who likes cooking. Food Wednesday has recommendations for you. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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