Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

The vacant middle

Will the constitutional referendum end the political impasse? Omayma Abdel-Latif explores possible scenarios

Al-Ahram Weekly

“The true Egyptian says no to the constitution,” insists the black graffiti drawn on the walls of 6 October ring road. Its message is symptomatic of the political polarisation that has taken hold since President Mohamed Morsi’s constitutional declaration of 22 November, an expression of the division of the body politic into us and them, with patriotism the exclusive preserve of whichever camp you happen to be in.
With one week left before the nation votes for or against the first post-25 January Revolution constitution neither the president nor his opponents appear to be in the mood for compromise. Escalation remains the name of the game on both sides. State institutions (including the judiciary), civil bodies (including syndicates) are engaged in unprecedented partisan politicking. Politicians and media pundits — the polarisation entrepreneurs — are on a mission to legitimise civil disobedience, contempt, conspiracy theories and the demonisation of opponents.
The atmosphere of extreme polarisation informs the criticism of the president’s call for a referendum voiced by some analysts. The political and social context into which the constitution is being put to vote is no less important than the document itself, one analyst argued.
“We cannot separate discussion of the constitution from the circumstances in which it was written and is being put to the vote,” wrote commentator Ziad Bahaaeddin. “How can we talk about a consensual constitution when the street is so divided? How can we think that ratifying such a document will lead to stability and development at a time when polarisation is at all time high?”
The fierce campaign each camp has been engaged in to sway voters has heightened the sense of irreconcilable division. No tactics are out of bounds. Copies are circulating of what purports to be the draft constitution that bear no resemblance to the actual text approved by the Constituent Assembly.
Morsi’s critics argue that his brinkmanship has not only pushed the country to the brink of the abyss but leaves no room for any retreat from the disastrous path. By calling for a popular vote on a controversial constitution at a time when the country is deeply divided Morsi has de-legitimised the entire process. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, they say, will now be mired in suspicion, all because the president singularly failed to foster the consensus he had promised during the presidential election campaign.
Morsi’s supporters, meanwhile, insist the draft constitution is the best in Egypt’s history. For the first time, they say, the nation’s constitution has been written not by an elite of constitutional experts but by an elected body which represents the true will of the people. They claim the constitution — the product of six months of hard work and meticulous discussion — is more progressive than its predecessors, adding that members of the Constituent Assembly who withdrew towards the end of the process did so because of partisan considerations and had, in any case, already agreed to the articles they now claim as contentious. The draft constitution, say its advocates, accurately reflects the existing balance of power in society and those who oppose it are opposing the will of the people.
The Supreme Judiciary Council’s decision to supervise the referendum has pulled the rug from beneath boycott calls. Staunch opponents of the draft such as Amr Moussa, head of Al-Mutamar party and member of the National Salvation Front, an umbrella of opposition forces from across the spectrum, have dismissed a boycott as useless. Instead, they urge a strenuous “no” campaign. The Strong Egypt Party has called on its supporters to participate in the referendum, while the deputy head of the Anglican Church has said church authorities will leave it up to its members to decide how they should vote.
“What is happening shows that those who have joined forces against President Morsi refuse to accept the ballot box as the final arbiter in the political game. This is the root of the crisis today,” a leading figure from the Salafist Construction and Development Party told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Numbers will be of greater significance in the forthcoming referendum than simply determining whether or not the draft is ratified. Voter turnout will provide the clearest indication yet of whether or not the public still have faith in the political process.
Anti-constitution advocates believe that a “no” vote, followed by the setting of new rules for the formation of a replacement constitution writing committee, is the only way out of the current crises. It would also serve to boost the opposition camp and could even usher in a genuine opposition movement. They argue that the Islamists need to understand that the street cannot be taken for granted. A “yes” vote, on the other hand, would only exacerbate an already complex situation.
Significantly, though, they fail to provide any details of the mechanism that will be used to select members of a “more representative” constitution writing committee. Nor is there any indication of whether the opposition is ready to contest parliamentary elections which, should the constitution be ratified, must take place within two months.
The “yes” camp argues a “no” vote will see the transition process return to square one. What they have yet to concede is that a weak “yes” will have the same effect, fatally undermining the legitimacy of the constitution they are so desperate to ratify.
Consensual politics appears to have been thrown out the window. “The ideological and political polarisation that has taken over the Egyptian revolution is pushing the nascent democratic transition to the brink of abyss,” said a statement issued this week by a group of university professors. The statement went on to insist it was the president’s responsibility to build consensus. Among the signatories was one of President Morsi’s advisors.

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