On Tuesday, Egypt votes on the new constitution, which aims to show the world that 30 June has electoral legitimacy, and thus undermine the Muslim Brotherhood’s legitimacy as well. Given that the Yes campaign is on the streets, on TV, in the newspapers, all over the social media and in targeted text messages to phones, and that the few who dare start a No campaign get arrested, it is fair to say that the Yes vote will win handily, since everyone who will go to the polls is planning to vote Yes anyway. The result will be as follows: a constitution that will get a historic turn-out and approval rating, but will not have electoral legitimacy, because, well, it’s hard to claim it is democratic if those who oppose it are getting arrested. Never mind that the state didn’t need to arrest the few No campaigners: historically, there hasn’t been a single referendum that Egyptians have voted No on. Moreover, the majority of Egyptians were planning to vote Yes anyway since they consider it a vote on the return of the MB to power. Instead, here we are, with the means used completely destroying the end desired.
It should be noted that the supreme majority of Egyptians have not really read the constitution, and don’t really care what it says, since for them it’s a “step towards the path of stability”. The majority of the Egyptian middle class – especially those in the lower-middle – are so economically crushed by the chaos of the last three years that they will do anything that brings a semblance of normality (and stable income) back into their lives. They want the constitution to pass and for the presidential elections to be held right after it because “the country has to be ruled”. In many of my conversations in Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods, the consensus I hear is the same: “We are tired. We want to work and raise our kids. We want the economy to get going, for the protests to stop getting into our way and livelihood and for the security to come back.” This is why they are voting yes, and if this sounds to you like the argument they had back in the 2012 and 2011 referendums, well, dear reader, you are not wrong. It’s the exact same argument and rationale. Some things never change around here.
Many are advancing the argument that the referendum and its high turn-out is a vote on Al-Sisi, which is something the Sisi-for-president enthusiasts are keen to propagate and utilise. This is also a means to their end of having the country governed by a strong leader who can bring back law and order and get — nay, force — Egyptians to work again. Those same enthusiasts will not get a rude awakening if Al-Sisi doesn’t run, but rather if he ran and won as expected, thanks to the constitution that they are so eager to pass.
The new constitution states that the new president will not be the high commander of the police; it states that he can’t fire a single minister without parliament’s approval; he can’t appoint a new Minister of Defencee without the military’s consent; he can’t chose the Minister of interior, Justice, or Foreign Affairs without the approval of the prime minister (who gets appointed by the parliament); he can’t declare a state of emergency without the prime minister and parliament’s approval; he can’t send troops overseas without the approval of the National Defense Council and two-thirds of the parliament; and he can’t provide a presidential pardon without the consent of the cabinet. Those who believe that President Al-Sisi would have absolute unchecked power to strongly lead us through those turbulent times will be perplexed the first time they demand his removal of a minister from his position and discover the kind of process he must go through to do that. A strong president indeed.
The one area of policy that President Al-Sisi will be able to set freely will be the foreign policy, which will not be fun for him at all. After all of this talk over “revolution or a coup”, having the defence minister who removed the president become the next president will make it a 100% certified coup, even if he is elected in record numbers. Welcome to strained diplomatic ties, to protests in every country he visits by democracy activists and local MB members. Oh, and how the MB members will love it: a justification for all of their talking points presented on a silver platter. Not to mention: Garbage is not collected? Blame Al-Sisi. Power black-out? Al-Sisi will be cursed. It doesn’t matter that those issues may be under the domain of the cabinet and the PM, the buck stops with the president.
The irony that those who love Al-Sisi the most are the ones who want him to have the worst job in Egypt is not lost on many of us, for it’s the same irony that those who desire a strong-man state are the ones voting Yes on a constitution that will not give them that at all. President Al-Sisi will have all of the responsibility, yet neither the tools nor the power to execute decisions the way he does now, something every presidential hopeful knows. Therefore, they are all collectively promoting Al-Sisi to run: pushing him to be president is the only way to destroy his popularity (and the idea of a strong military ruler) once and for all, and that is their end.