Even with ‘yes’ vote, Egypt far from consensus

As Egyptians cast their vote on the constitution, analysts are skeptical on whether the landmark referendum will be a product of consensus

Eman El-Shenawi

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The expats have already voted, and an overwhelming percentage has already said “yes” in the referendum on Egypt’s amended constitution, seen as a test of support for army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s presidential bid.

Despite it being a shabby turnout, – only 15 percent of expatriates around the world casted their ballots last week – early counts gathered from 18 embassies suggest that those in support of the charter are north of 90 percent.

Now, as Egyptians at home cast their vote on Tuesday and Wednesday, analysts are skeptical on whether the referendum will be a product of consensus, with wall-to-wall publicity around the country for the “yes” campaign.

“Quite a bit of diplomatic and public relations effort has been expended to make the current round of constitution-writing look as though the outcome is a product of consensus,” Walter Armbrust, a Hourani Fellow and University Lecturer in Modern Middle East Studies at Oxford University, told Al Arabiya News on Tuesday.

“With almost all Islamists saying they'll boycott, and the state suppressing any effort anyone might have made to argue against the constitution, the result isn't in doubt,” added Armbrust, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood refusing to take part in the vote.

Billboards flaunting adverts for the yes campaign appeared even before the draft text was completed by a 50-strong army-appointed committee in December.

Boycotts and backers

Now, an overwhelming “yes” vote is being idly anticipated, despite the boycott and despite reservations from activists over the constitution drafted by the fifty-member committee following the toppling of Muslim Brotherhood-backed former President Mohammad Mursi in July.

Pointing out several misgivings, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights criticized the draft in a statement this week, comparing it to Mursi’s 2012 Islamist-backed constitution which was scrapped on the day of his ouster.

“The draft constitution allows for the legal restriction and diminishment of the human rights it upholds by leaving the interpretation of several of its articles to statutory law. In addition, the latest revision preserves several problematic articles from the now suspended 2012 constitution, including one legalizing military trials for civilians.

“The 2013 draft constitution does not provide for a political system that will guarantee and protect the rights and liberties it ostensibly recognizes from violations through legislation and attacks by the security apparatus, both of which have occurred and have continued to occur in flagrant violation of a draft constitution whose ink has barely dried,” the statement added.

Still, there has not been much talk about the cons of the charter, writes Dr. H. A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a specialist on Egyptian politics.

“Indeed, there have probably been more discussions about what has happened to people who argued against the constitution – members of the Strong Egypt Party, for example, were arrested for doing so.”

So who’s backing the constitution? It’s an odd coalition of secular parties, pro-army businessmen – and ultra-conservative Islamists from the Salafist al-Nour party, former allies of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the Egyptians who want to see army chief General Sisi become the country’s next president.

“The issue really is not the constitution, but direction the Egyptian people want their government their country to take. The overwhelming majority will not have read all or even some of the constitution,” Graeme Bannerman, an Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute, told Al Arabiya News.

In fact, this might well be a referendum on a whole host of ideas.

“The vote is a national referendum on the removal of President Mursi, the roadmap established by the interim government, and whether or not Defense Minister Sisi should be a candidate for President of Egypt. If the voter turnout is large and overwhelmingly positive, the answer to all three of those questions will be ‘yes,’” Bannerman added.

Support for the constitution equals support for Sisi

Sisi is becoming increasingly viewed as the man who can restore stability to Egypt after he spearheaded Mursi’s ouster, the nationwide crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood figures and supporters, becoming a national hero in the process; his posters plastered across Cairo.

But Sisi’s Islamist foes see the general as the mastermind of a coup that ignited the worst internal strife in Egypt's modern history and brought back what critics call a police state.

“Many rank-and-file Islamists, particularly Muslim Brotherhood members, justifiably feel disenfranchised by the removal of Mursi. But one should not forget that when the shoe was on the other foot the MB leadership colluded with the military to write a constitution without first laying the groundwork of consensus,” Armbrust said.

The army general will run for president if people demanded him to be the country’s new leader, and if the military supports such mandate, state owned al-Ahram newspaper reported on Saturday.

“If I nominate myself, there must be a popular demand, and a mandate from my army,” al-Ahram quoted Sisi as saying during a military-organized function.

"He's a man," Om Sami, who lives in a Cairo slum, told Reuters news agency, in reference to Sisi’s standing as a powerful figure.

"The situation does not please us, but we'll vote 'yes' [to the constitution] and God willing it will get better."

This nationalistic optimism and hope for stability – which has been linked to the Egyptian army since Mursi’s downfall – is the ultimate sign of the constitution winning popular support.

“The military has weigh in strongly in favor of a ‘yes’ vote. The Egyptian army remains the most popular institution in the country. They remain so because they are seen as Egyptian nationalists. The overwhelming majority of Egyptians are Egyptian nationalists,”

The question still looms, however, on how an expectedly overwhelming positive vote can be realistically measured. One way would be to gauge it against Mursi’s constitutional vote, which was boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood’s rivals.

Bannerman explains, with the stats: “In the President Mursi constitutional vote about 33% of the approximately 53 million potential Egyptian voters cast a vote. Of those who voted about 64% voted in favor of the Mursi constitution. At a minimum, the turnout this week should be greater and the “yes” percentage should be even higher. To be truly impressive each of the Mursi constitution percentages must be surpassed by a statistically significant number – more than five percent.”