Egypt’s constitutional referendum has solved nothing

January’s referendum on Egypt’s new constitution was a test of legitimacy and public support for the country’s military-backed authorities

Sharif Nashashibi
Sharif Nashashibi
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January’s referendum on Egypt’s new constitution was not actually about the constitution. Only 5 percent of people had read it prior to the vote, according to the independent Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera), which described this statistic as “remarkable.” For most of those who turned out, “the details were irrelevant,” wrote Richard Spencer, the Daily Telegraph’s Cairo-based Middle East correspondent.

Rather, the referendum was a test of legitimacy and public support for the country’s military-backed authorities, and for their ousting in July last year of former President Mohamed Mursi. Their performance was woefully lacking before the constitution was even drafted.

Critics of Mursi’s constitution were justified in arguing that the drafting process was not inclusive, and was dominated by Islamists. Its replacement suffered from the same problem in reverse: the 50-member drafting committee included only two Islamists, neither of them from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group. Granted it would have refused to take part, but it said it was never invited to do so anyway.

The run-up to the referendum can only be described as farcical. The authorities, their financial backers and a pliant media pumped money, air time and column space towards a yes vote. Campaigning for a no vote or a boycott, on the other hand, was all but impossible, with the arrest, beating and prosecution of those who did so, the closure of opposition and even independent media, and the banning of the Brotherhood as a ‘terrorist’ group.

Though the organization would have boycotted the referendum anyway, state intimidation was cited by other parties as the reason they were joining the boycott. These included the Strong Egypt Party and the April 6 Youth Movement, both of which opposed Mursi’s constitution.

Democracy International, which according to the Financial Times “fielded the most robust international monitoring operation,” expressed “serious concerns” about the political environment preceding the latest vote. “There was no real opportunity... to dissent,” said the Washington-based consultancy. “This constrained campaign environment made a robust debate on the substance and merits of the constitution impossible.”

For all Mursi’s faults - and he had many - at least there was a vigorous campaign against his constitution, by opposition groups that were not outlawed

Sharif Nashashibi

Transparency International, which also sent observers for the referendum, condemned “repression by state authorities” prior to the vote. The government “harassed, arrested, and prosecuted peaceful critics, closing democratic space to promote views and debate before the referendum,” said the Berlin-based anti-corruption organization.

The U.S.-based Carter Center, which observed the previous constitutional vote, said it was “deeply concerned” by the “narrowed political space surrounding the upcoming referendum.” It said it would not field observers this time because “the late release of regulations for accreditation of witnesses” meant that the Center would be unable to do its job properly.

The result was “the least free and fair of the five national referendums and elections held since Egypt’s military-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak was pushed from power by mass protests in February 2011,” wrote Christian Science Monitor correspondent Dan Murphy. For all Mursi’s faults - and he had many - at least there was a vigorous campaign against his constitution, by opposition groups that were not outlawed.

The authorities failed to prevent violence during the two-day vote, despite the deployment of tens of thousands of soldiers. Those soldiers were also the cause of much of that violence, with demonstrators killed, injured, beaten or dispersed, and hundreds arrested.


Although Mursi’s constitution passed with some 64 percent of votes, its critics argued with some justification that the constitution still lacked sufficient legitimacy because of the low turnout of just 33 percent. Even though the new constitution garnered support from some 98 percent of those who voted - hardly surprising given the boycott and the crackdown on a no vote - it managed only a slightly higher turnout of 38.6 percent.

Furthermore, Al Jazeera English reported that less than 682,000 Egyptian expatriates registered to vote on the election committee’s website, out of anywhere between 2.7 million and 8 million Egyptians live outside the country.

Election Commission head Nabil Salib’s description of the vote as an “unrivalled success” with “unprecedented turnout” is laughable. Turnout was dismal even by the standards of the constitution-drafting committee, which - according to its head Amr Moussa - was hoping for a turnout of 75 percent. The actual figure was almost half that. Moussa himself said he expected a “huge” and “unprecedented” turnout - 38.6 percent qualifies as neither.

Turnout was particularly lacking given three important factors. Firstly, the government had said participation was a patriotic duty. Secondly, the Salafist Al-Nour party - which won the second-largest number of seats in the last parliamentary elections, after the Brotherhood - supported the new constitution.

Thirdly, army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi - who is widely viewed in almost messianic terms - had reportedly hinted that he would consider a high turnout (as well as a strong yes vote) as a mandate to run for president later this year.

The low turnout can be interpreted as a victory for the boycott movement, which involved dozens of groups and political parties. Some see it rather as a sign of public apathy - this may well be a contributing factor.

However, it is countered by a Baseera poll in December, in which only 20 percent of Egyptians rated the government’s performance as good. “Egyptians’ sentiments toward the government... are entirely negative,” said Magued Osman, CEO and managing director of Baseera.

A breakdown of the turnout figure paints an even bleaker picture. “Across much of Egypt’s rural, impoverished south barely a quarter of voters bothered to show up this time, and only 16 percent in the religiously conservative coastal province of Mersa Matrouh. Nationwide, the figure for voters under the age of 30 was barely 20 percent,” read an editorial in The Economist.

“Such discrepancies reflect not only the hardening of a dangerous polarisation between Islamists and their foes, but widespread disgruntlement among Egypt’s youth,” the editorial added. “A generation of young Egyptians felt briefly and giddily empowered by the 2011 revolution. They now sense that the ‘wall of fear’ they had demolished is being rebuilt around them, brick by brick.”

Bleak prospects

Just as Mursi’s constitution exacerbated national divisions while promising the opposite, the same is true of its replacement. It has simply entrenched the idea of three increasingly irreconcilable Egypts: that which supports Sisi and the military, that which backs Mursi and the Brotherhood, and that which opposes both.

This process will continue with the almost-certain scenario of a military figure (Sisi) as the next president, and an ever-widening clampdown on dissent. Mubarak must be getting a strong and satisfying sense of deja vu.

Crucially, there is no sign that approval of this new constitution has made, or will make, any positive difference to the country’s myriad and chronic problems. If anything, deadly violence is worsening, wholesale disenfranchisement is becoming more entrenched, human rights are being trampled on by a fully resurgent police state, and the economy remains on life support.

“Egypt has witnessed a series of damaging blows to human rights and state violence on an unprecedented scale” since Mursi’s ouster, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa deputy director at Amnesty International, said in a report published in January. Egypt, where “the current state of human rights is abysmal,” is “headed firmly down the path towards further repression and confrontation.”

Indeed, the new constitution enhances even further the power and impunity of the military, whose political and economic influence was already pervasive, even during Egypt’s short-lived period of civilian democratic rule. Amnesty’s Secretary General Salil Shetty added in a subsequent report that “only one narrative is acceptable in Egypt today - that which is sanctioned by the Egyptian authorities.”

Murphy concludes that “the words in a constitution are usually far less important than a country’s political constitution, and many constitutions that look good on paper (the current Iraqi one comes to mind) are often simply ignored when they get in leaders’ way.

“Is Egypt about to become a paradise for the rights of women or its Christian minorities because the constitution says so? Will the journalists currently in detention be sprung from the jails after the referendum? Almost certainly not... If recent history is anything to go by, the outlook is not good.”

This article was first published in the Middle East Magazine.


Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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