Poison pill in Egypt's constitution may hobble anti-Mubarak drive

Experts warn that the language of the constitution means Mubarak's immediate exit could actually hamstring Egypt's democratic transition.

Thousands of demonstrators take part in anti-government protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo as they dug in for their third week of demonstrations.
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CAIRO // Protesters in Egypt have battled police and pro-regime activists in a bid to oust their long-time ruler and replace him in free elections, but they may have another hurdle to overcome: the constitution.

In two weeks of demonstrations, protesters have made it clear their first demand is the immediate resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 30 years, longer than many of his younger opponents have been alive.

So far, he has attempted to placate them by appointing his first-ever vice president, pledging not to stand in September elections and offering to ease the conditions for presidential candidacy.

Protesters have held firm in their demand for his departure, but some activists and experts warn that the language of the constitution means his immediate exit could actually hamstring Egypt's democratic transition.

"The document has been booby-trapped," one Middle East expert, Nathan Brown, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine, pointing out that the power to change it lies exclusively with Mr Mubarak.

"For those who are attempting to move Egypt in a democratic direction … today's problem is how to force the regime to negotiate the terms of transition in good faith," he said.

If Mr Mubarak leaves office, the constitution requires presidential elections within 60 days, but its candidacy limits would virtually guarantee the top job to a member of his ruling National Democratic Party.

Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said: "It would be a disaster to have presidential elections under the current constitution."

Amendments made by Mr Mubarak himself impose "impossible conditions" on would-be candidates, intended to ensure "that he or his son or his chosen candidate can win, and that no other credible candidate is able to", he said.

Mr Bahgat and others argue that a middle road must be charted, keeping Mr Mubarak on temporarily so he can initiate constitutional reform, delegate power and usher in a broad-based transitional government.

"We would love of course to start over on a clean slate, but the problem is now, as change advocates, we need the constitution much more than Mubarak and his regime do," he said.

Other reformers agree. One group that includes the prominent businessman Naguib Sawiris, the analyst Amr Hamzawy and the journalist Salama Ahmed Salama outlined their reform proposal on the pages of the independent Al Shorouk newspaper.

An Egyptian rights group has even drawn up a 15-day timetable under which constitutional amendments could be drafted and voted upon.

The suggestions contain the same key points. They want Mr Mubarak to first delegate power to several vice presidents, effectively stripping his office of authority to do anything but amend the constitution and lift Egypt's emergency law.

The president would then offer amendments to some of the constitution's most controversial articles, including article 76 which governs candidacy and article 77 which removed term limits on the presidency.

In line with the constitution, the amendments would then be adopted by Egypt's legislature, in its final act before being dissolved.

Finally, the amendments would be put to a referendum, and new elections for the president and parliament would be organised after they were adopted.

The process could provide "a way out of the grave crisis that has plagued the country and its citizens", the group writing in Al Shorouk said.

For some demonstrators out on the street, the proposals miss the point, giving Mr Mubarak a way to leave his stamp on Egypt's future and cling to office a little longer.

Mr Bahgat acknowledges that some of the protesters see the constitutional proposals as a concession to a much-hated regime. But he defends them as essential.

"What we have achieved so far is tremendous," he said. "But at some point we have to get from the demonstrations into a transition to democracy."