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Egypt needs rights, democratic principles before its votes

With the threat of Islamic groups possibly winning power and then hijacking democracy, Egypt needs a bill of rights and other democratic guarantees before an election.

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Arabs still living under despotic regimes are closely watching a pivotal struggle in postrevolutionary Egypt – one that may define the future of democracy in the Middle East and North Africa.

The struggle is this: Should Egyptians first ensure basic rights and democratic principles in a constitution before holding an election? Or will a new parliament soon to be elected be able to ensure those rights and principles – even if some Islamic political groups oppose Western-style freedoms?

The issue comes to a head July 8 when 36 groups seeking a constitution before an election plan to hold a mass protest in Tahrir Square.

Currently, a parliamentary election is planned for September – without many safeguards for a fair vote, let alone basic rights or checks on government powers. The newly elected body will then select a group of 100 citizens to write a constitution.

Newly liberated countries, faced with starting a democracy from scratch, often face this kind of chicken-and-egg dilemma. Not all have succeeded in making the transition – most notably Iran, where Muslim clerics hijacked a weak democracy after the 1979 revolution.

The Egyptian revolt that ousted Hosni Mubarak five months ago clearly defined what the people don’t want: a life of fear under a corrupt regime that did little for the economy.

But with the military now in charge of a transitional government, Egyptians still lack a firm consensus on the type of democracy they do want. Too much of the public debate focuses on the maneuvering for power between groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, liberal secularists, and those once aligned with Mr. Mubarak.

Egyptians don’t seem to be asking fundamental questions, such as:

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