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How many times does Egypt have to do this to get it right?

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer

Dr. H.A. Hellyer

Three years is not a particularly long time. In fact, in the history of nations, it’s not more than a blip on the timeline. Yet, in three years, Egyptians have seen events repeat themselves again, and again. They’re about to see it happen again with this forthcoming constitutional referendum – a recurrence of a bad set of decisions, yet again. It would be amusing if it was not so tragic – but, indeed, Egypt’s transitional process, that so far has stymied its revolution, rather than enabling it, has been nothing but tragic.

There are certain steps that are meant to be taken in a constitution that occurs after an uprising that leads to a revolution. In this regard, I refer to the revolution of the 25 January in 2011, which never had the constitution it deserved. The constitution that was forced through by the ousted former president Mohammed Morsi in 2012 could not qualify to be the revolutionary constitution that anyone hoped for. When it came to a vote, few in the country knew and understood its contents. Those who pushed for a ‘yes’ vote managed to get around 20% of the country’s voting population out to vote in their favour – those who pushed for a ‘no’ vote managed to get around 10%. Essentially, seven out of ten Egyptians couldn’t be bothered to vote one way or the other. That’s not a constitutional process anyone should be proud of – because it shows, clearly, the Egyptian people were generally not interested in the ‘yes’ camp’s argument, or the ‘no’ camp’s.

That was a failure then – and for the past year, the organised political opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies has argued that it was a divisive constitution as well as a divisive process. It seems, once in a while, even those flailing in the wilderness manage to strike it right. It was an awful process, indeed – even for those who did end up voting. Those that voted did not really do so for the constitution itself – but treated it as a referendum on Morsi’s government thus far. The Muslim Brotherhood made it clear they thought of it as such – and so did the then opposition. As though that was the point of any constitutional process – not on the articles contained therein, but on who was in charge when it was put it together.

How wonderful, therefore, that Egypt stands poised to do the exact same thing again. The military-backed interim cabinet issued a statement earlier this week that the referendum would take place in the second half of January – with a draft presumably ready in December sometime. That gives the electorate anything from three to six weeks to discuss the draft, and decide on their vote. We can look forward to numerous discussions on television programs; civil society meetings; café shop conversations; family gatherings; and so on.

Actually, we should not be looking forward to that in the slightest, because just like last time, this vote shan’t be decided on the merits of the draft. This constitutional referendum is a part of the road-map General Sisi put in place – and it is the first vote within that road-map. No other vote has taken place – despite some suggesting that it would have been a good idea to have a referendum on the road map in order to establish a secure legitimacy for the path taken forward.

When people go to the polls in January, it is entirely likely to be as simply as this; if you support the military, then you’ll vote ‘yes’, as a ‘yes’ to the road-map the military backed. One wonders if the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters will mobilise for a ‘no’ vote – but in all likelihood, they’ll boycott the entire process as against ‘legitimacy’. If so, the actual ‘no’ vote is likely to be rather small. Even if the ‘Anti-Coup Alliance’ does mobilise for a ‘no’ vote’, it’s not clear that it will be able to mobilise particularly effectively – and just as those who vote ‘yes’, their ‘no’ vote will be predicated not on the draft, but on the military. Their ‘no’ will be an expression of defiance against the military – not on the constitution itself.

Does that mean Egypt is likely to see something of a repeat of last year’s vote, where around 70% of the electorate stayed home, but the constitution passing anyway? One cannot be sure – but it is clear that within the government itself, already many concerns are being raised about turnout. It is important for this government to be able to say more people voted yes, both in absolutely terms as well as percentage wise, for this constitution as compared to the draft issued under Morsi. Supporters of a ‘yes’ vote are already putting together a media campaign that insinuates support for the 25 January Revolution and the ‘June 30th’ coup/ revolution/ both/ neither/ whatever demands a ‘yes’ vote in the constitutional referendum. Within the state, it may even be the case that Egyptians are able to vote anywhere in the country, rather than limited to their actual constituency, in order to make it easy to vote. And, of course, no one is thinking about a plan ‘b’. If the vote is not a ‘yes’, there would have to be, essentially, a readjustment to the entire road map – but no-one sees that as a realistic possibility anyway.

Where does that leave Egyptians? Simply stated, it leaves them waiting for a constitution that few are likely to feel much value for as an actual document. The ‘yes’ camp is unlikely to be about the constitution – it will probably be about the rejection of the Brotherhood, and the support of the military. The ‘no’ camp is unlikely to be about the constitution either – it will be about the protagonists in Egyptian politics. Turnout will probably be better than last year, particularly if the military (still the most trusted institution in Egyptian politics, if that means much) comes out strenuously in support of even participating in the referendum. But that’s hardly an accomplishment in and of itself: a real accomplishment would have been a process that all sectors of society bought into, and debated from the grassroots up. Yes, it would have taken longer – but Egypt then would be voting on a constitution, as opposed to voting on who created a process to make one.

About the author

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H.A. Hellyer

Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .


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