Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Yes means go

The completion of this week’s referendum is the first serious step on a long road filled with political challenges, Gamal Essam El-Din reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Preliminary reports suggest a large turnout and overwhelming yes vote in the two-day referendum on a new constitution.

Amr Hashem Rabie, an expert on Egyptian polls, believes “the turnout is likely to be around 50 per cent of the 53 million eligible voters”.

“In March 2011,” he notes, “after Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office and when most Egyptians were more than eager to exercise their political rights, voter turnout for the referendum on the interim constitutional declaration reached 43 per cent — the highest credible figure in more than three decades.”

When the constitution drafted under the Morsi/Muslim Brotherhood regime was voted on turnout fell to 33 per cent — a reflection of growing political antipathy and disenchantment with the Brotherhood regime.

All the forces which played a role in ousting Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood want a record turnout this week, says Rabie. “A massive turnout and an overwhelming yes vote is being seen as necessary to legitimise the ousting of Morsi on 30 June 2013.”

Al-Ahram analyst Amr Al-Chobaki believes “a 50 per cent voter turnout with the majority saying yes is enough to legitimise the new constitution.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood’s 2012 constitution attracted just 33 per cent of the electorate of which 10 million [63 per cent] voted yes and six million voted no. If the new referendum attracts more than 20 million it will show that people have abandoned political apathy, and if 15 million say yes it will legitimise not only the new constitution but the post-30 June political roadmap.”

Rabie and Al-Chobaki both argue that the turnout of Egyptian expatriates — held between 8 and 12 January — reinforced predictions that the new constitution would be overwhelmingly endorsed. Around 98 per cent of expats — they were required to vote in person at Egyptian embassies and consulates — approved the new constitution.

According to official figures, 103,000 Egyptians living abroad voted in the referendum.  

“This figure is much higher than 2012 when 87,000 [15 per cent] voted in person in the referendum,” says Badr Abdel-Atti, Foreign Ministry spokesman. “A total of 244,000 expatriates voted in the 2012 constitution referendum, the vast majority sent their votes by mail. Scrapping postal voting this year accounts for the fall in the total number of voters but the fact remains the number of Egyptian expats turning up in person to vote was much higher than in 2012.”

Polling stations were secured by up to 160,000 soldiers and 100,000 police. The Muslim Brotherhood had vowed to disrupt the ballot and the first day of voting on Tuesday saw 11 killed in clashes between Brotherhood supporters and ordinary citizens and security forces. A bomb went off in the Giza district of Imbaba but no casualties were reported.

In Cairo, which in 2012 voted against the election of Morsi in June and rejected the Islamist-oriented constitution in December, queues formed early outside polling stations. Taxi driver Nasser Suleiman arrived before work to vote in Maadi. “I arrived at 9am, just as the polling station was scheduled to open and people were already queuing,” he says.

The high turnout is unlikely to impact on the hostile press campaign being led by American newspapers such as The Washington Post and New York Times, both of which have alleged that the army has led a campaign of intimidation against anyone distributing leaflets calling for a no vote.

Hafez Abu Seada, director of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, insisted in a television interview that “NGO monitors have not recorded any threats by the army.”

“What we did find is that security forces intervened to prevent factions affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood using violence to force citizens to vote no.”

In an editorial entitled “Egypt’s bogus democracy does not deserve US aid”, the Washington Post alleged on Tuesday that “the new constitution aims to install an autocracy more repressive than any the country has known in decades.”

Mohamed Salmawy, official spokesman of the 50-member committee which drafted the new constitution, accused the American media of “doing its best to tarnish democratic transition in Egypt”.

“They do this primarily out of arrogance,” says Salmawy. “How can a new liberal constitution that gained the consensus of all political factions in Egypt be described as aiming to install a repressive autocracy that the country has not known for decades? What this arrogant newspaper is suggesting is that the autocratic regimes of Mubarak and Morsi — which Egyptians removed from office in two revolutions — were better than the liberal political system which the new constitution adopts and for which Egyptians turned out in their millions to vote.”

Gamal Zahran, professor of political science at Suez Canal University, sees the successful completion of this week’s referendum as the first step on the long road towards democratic rule.

Zahran believes the interim government appointed after Morsi’s ouster, backed by the army and led by liberal economist Hazem Al-Beblawi, has successfully weathered Western pressure, imposed discipline on the streets and made strides in re-establishing security. “As a result, and despite Muslim Brotherhood threats to disrupt the ballot, the referendum was held in a peaceful and democratic atmosphere.”

That the 50-member committee drafting the constitution included representatives from most political factions contributed to its endorsement. “This is in sharp contrast with events last year when a constitution drafted by Islamists was passed by a wafer thin majority,” says Zahran.

Ziad Al-Uleimi, a high-profile member of 25 January Revolution’s youth coalitions, is less sanguine. The military-backed interim government of Al-Beblawi may have silenced the Muslim Brotherhood and other secular opposition forces ahead of the referendum but this has come at a high cost, he says. “Hundreds have been killed in violent clashes, and increasingly strident calls for army chief Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to run in the upcoming presidential elections threaten to drag Egypt back to military rule.”

Loyalists of Mubarak’s defunct ruling National Democratic Party — popularly called fulul — are now retrenching, notes Al-Uleimi. They have organised public rallies in support of the new constitution and are also calling for Al-Sisi to stand in the presidential elections. “The referendum this week will pave the way for Al-Sisi and the return of the Mubarak regime rather than solving the real political crisis which is how to force an inclusive civilian democracy.”

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party — of which Al-Uleimi and Al-Beblawi are both members — supports the new constitution. Its chairman Mohamed Abul-Ghar, a member of the constitution-drafting committee, describes the newly-drafted charter as the best in decades.

But what comes after the referendum?

Analysts posit a number of scenarios for the post-referendum period.

The post-30 June political roadmap envisaged that the referendum would be followed by parliamentary polls. “But,” says Ali Awad, constitutional adviser to interim President Adli Mansour, “after the interim president held a series of meetings with high-profile public figures and representatives of political factions last month a consensus emerged in favour of presidential elections ahead of parliamentary polls.”

“President Mansour couldn’t endorse any change to the roadmap ahead of the referendum and believes that any changes to the roadmap must first be carefully considered in political and legal terms.”

Awad agrees that “if the referendum on the new constitution receives a resounding yes it will give calls for early presidential elections greater momentum.” He expects “President Mansour will give a final decision on the timetabling of elections within 30 days.”

Zahran also believes an overwhelming yes vote will be seen as an endorsement of Al-Sisi’s candidacy.

“I think this week’s vote is as much about the popularity of Al-Sisi as it is an endorsement of the new constitution.”

In a meeting with army officers and public figures on Saturday Al-Sisi appealed to Egyptians to turn out in large numbers to vote on the new constitution.

Several political factions have announced their support for an Al-Sisi nomination. But Al-Ahram political analyst Emad Gad warns that it would be a mistake for political factions not to field rival candidates.

“If no one fields candidates against Al-Sisi then we are back to Mubarak-style presidential ballots,” he says. “Al-Sisi’s nomination is sure to trigger criticism from Western officials and media hostile to the military. Some will label the presidential election a farce and the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to push the line that Al-Sisi led a coup against Morsi to end the January Revolution and return Egypt to military rule.”

Al-Ahram analyst Wahid Abdel-Maguid agrees.

“The presidential election must not be a shoe-in for Al-Sisi. And if Mansour endorses presidential elections first then it is essential that the powers of the president until a new parliament is elected are clearly delineated.”

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