What do Egyptians really care about in their country's constitutional referendum? Not the constitution, for starters.
- By Manal OmarManal Omar is associate vice president of the Center for the Middle East and Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
CAIRO — The first day of a much-hyped constitutional referendum confirmed two things that most Egyptians already knew. First, this third referendum in as many years has little to do with the actual document being voted on. And second, there is virtually no question of what the result will be: The constitution will pass by a landslide.
The two-day referendum, which began Tuesday, Jan. 14, is widely seen as an opportunity to end — or at least mitigate — the political debates that have been threatening to rip Egypt apart. The country has been deeply polarized since July 3, 2013, when the military deposed President Mohamed Morsi. The previous constitution was suspended, and a new road map for a political transition, led by a military-appointed government, was established. This government, which has banned the previously ruling Muslim Brotherhood and cracked down on street protesters, wrote the newly proposed constitution. The document incorporates more rights and freedoms than the last constitution, but it also guarantees greater autonomy for the military, still affirms principles of Islamic law as the main sources of legislation, limits the establishment of trade unions to one per profession, and leaves room for civilians to be tried in military courts — all causes of popular discontent.
Yet in voting, many people I spoke to said their primary interest is not in enacting a particular government charter; rather, it is in finding a way to move the country forward and to bring attention back to the much-needed social and economic reforms that inspired the 2011 revolution. Which is to say, they just want to get past it.
Everyone also seemed to silently acknowledge the elephant sitting in the polling rooms: A no vote is not even an option.
The government’s mass-media campaign for the referendum has delivered a clear message. It hasn’t been implied — it has literally been spelled out across the country. Not-so-subtle billboards reading "YES to the referendum, NO to darkness" are echoed by television and radio ads declaring, "YES to the referendum, NO to terrorism." (The transitional government has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.)
Muslim Brotherhood supporters refuse to acknowledge the road map developed after July 3 and thus are boycotting the vote; they adamantly maintain that reinstalling Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, is the only legitimate process for the country to move forward. Meanwhile, for many activists and political parties involved in the 2011 revolution, participating in the referendum was not really a choice. Those who have attempted to advocate a no vote have faced harsh state retaliation. The most cited example to date has been the arrest of several members of the Strong Egypt Party a few days prior to the vote for distributing posters encouraging a vote against the constitution.
The truth of the matter is that such a dramatic crackdown was probably unnecessary. Historically, there has never been a no vote in any of Egypt’s referendums. In fact, it has always been ambiguous as to what the implications of a no vote would really be. The July 3 road map does not even account for such a result.
The only resounding "no" consistently heard around Cairo in the lead-up to the vote was when people were asked whether they had read the constitution. From taxi drivers to youth activists, people seemed surprised by the question. For many — perhaps most — Egyptians, the document itself is irrelevant. This goes even for those supporting the military: The referendum for them is ultimately a way of solidifying legitimacy for the July 3 road map. Many people in this camp describe a vote of yes as a mark of the end of the "Muslim Brotherhood reign" and a popular verdict on the removal of Morsi.
In the days prior to the referendum, there was much talk about what the level of turnout would be. The 2012 constitution drafted under Morsi passed with a 63.8 percent rate of approval, but only 32.9 percent of the population voted. For many, this was a clear indication of the lack of support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. Similarly, the percentage of voter turnout this time around will be seen as an indicator of the relative confidence in Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s leadership, as he plans to run for president.
But even with questions about turnout swirling, the primary emphasis for a yes vote has remained on pushing past this period of unrest.
Indeed, most Egyptians are fully aware of the trade-off they are supporting. Even the staunchest backers of the military will admit that there is worry about a return of the police state — widespread concern about the lack of permitted dissent and the limits being placed on the freedom of expression, the right to demonstrate, and independent media. Yet there is a conscious decision being made to deal away some basic civil liberties for more stability, something more likely with a yes vote.
A large number of Egyptians I spoke to have become apathetic about the political situation, and an even larger number say they never want to see a protest shutting down their streets ever again. Egyptians are quick to emphasize that the goal of the average citizen is no longer a democratic process. Rather, it is to see a steady, strong government that can lead to tangible improvements in everyday lives.
A 56-year-old homemaker perhaps described it best. "For Tantawi’s constitution, we said yes; for Morsi’s constitution, we said yes for stability; and now we say yes for June 30 and for stability and security. People are tired. We want to move on," she told Mada Masr, a self-described independent and progressive Egyptian media outlet that has provided direct reporting from the polling stations.
The reality, of course, is that the same trade-off has been made before. The assumption that a quick endorsement of a new constitution will lead to Egypt leaping forward into its next chapter is the same one voters made in previous referenda. And in both cases, the stability so desperately yearned for did not materialize.
Egyptian activists who reject both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are watching from the sidelines with dismay as, they say, history repeats itself. It’s the same play, but with different actors or people in new roles. The plot isn’t new: public demonization, mass arrests, criminal trials, and a fast-forwarded political process. And though it’s too soon to tell, many activists fear that the play will end as it has before — that a military-led government leaning toward consolidating and maintaining its power will repeat the same mistakes of its predecessors.
If this happens, critics say, there’s a risk that Egyptians will just hit the reset button once more. Then, the play will start all over from the beginning.