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A referendum caught between supporters and traitors

By Wael Eskandar A referendum is meant to be a vote by the public whereby they can freely express their position on a certain political matter, but what is the point of a referendum when you’re only allowed to “freely” express one position but not the other? Enough has been said about the referendum to …

Wael Eskandar
Wael Eskandar

By Wael Eskandar

A referendum is meant to be a vote by the public whereby they can freely express their position on a certain political matter, but what is the point of a referendum when you’re only allowed to “freely” express one position but not the other?

Enough has been said about the referendum to understand that it was never a vote on the constitution. The document itself is flawed as pointed out even by extremely biased state influenced media. The rhetoric used to urge voters to accept the constitution interprets the referendum as a means to legitimise their existence through means other than mass protests. It marks the desire of the regime to end street politics that are difficult to control, into the more easily containable ballot box.

A great majority of voters were transparent as to why they voted Yes. It was simply a way to emphasise their rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood and close the chapter. Other reasons branching from this general sentiment are the desire for stability, gratitude for General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi and military intervention, approval of the roadmap and so forth.

These reasons are not to be undermined. That there is a great sentiment of resentment against the Muslim Brotherhood within Egyptian society is undoubted; however, questions arise as to whether the path chosen actually achieves the goals perceived by those who approved it.

The real question is whether the government, bent on selling lies to the public, is actually taking the Yes vote as a means to achieve what people think it does. Was the regime asking a question to its citizens through the referendum or sending out an answer?

The government sent out every possible message that Yes was the only acceptable answer to the referendum. The defamation of potential actors who disapprove of the fore-drawn path combined with state security crackdowns on both Islamists and their independent opposition sent out a message that dissent is not tolerated. Public personalities queued up to echo state rhetoric, media did not allow opposition voices and the streets were flooded with expensive advertisements both direct and subliminal to guide people into participating with a Yes vote.

This unnecessary oversell had adverse effects on some people who grew suspicious as they would of a salesperson overly insistent on selling a product they already thought was good. But perhaps the most damaging of all measures is the arrest of activists campaigning for the No vote in the referendum (that along with ridiculous incidents, such as the arrest of a voter who wrote “No to Military Trials of Civilians” on the ballot box). It is a message from the regime in the strongest possible sense that this is the same kind of faux democracy under Mubarak, where democratic procedures were allowed but not democratic participation. Choice would be allowed in theory and eliminated in practice.

It is not likely that the majority of the voting block sees the crackdown on No campaigners as necessary or even beneficial.  They probably see it as a needless, stupid act that is inconsequential to the results (and rightly so). But it is exactly because such campaigning would not have changed the outcome that there is a fundamental problem and that these arrests cast a biggest shadow on the legitimacy of the referendum. A democracy is measured by the strength of the opposition, but in Egypt there is no opposition, only supporters and traitors.

While people see this act as entirely unnecessary, it is possible to speculate that the current regime doesn’t. These acts, along with a referendum, are meant to establish order. A government needs people to obey and dissidents to fear, and what better means other than enforcing that which the majority has already agree to. The referendum holds a different promise to the regime than it does to people, the promise that people will accept what they’re told through media, songs, posters, threats and punishment, if necessary. After all, governments have no reason to exist unless they govern, and in Egypt’s case, its governance has meant it can mandate what people should think.

In my assessment, impunity for the regime was implicitly voted for along with some of the people’s aspirations. The real concern, however, is that state impunity and oppression will strengthen opposition against it. In the long run, this may even strengthen the Brotherhood once again, who can be regarded as the most powerful organised alternative in the ranks of the opposition if sufficient numbers survive this crackdown. The results don’t seem to help avert this path either. A medium turn out, with an approval percentage of nearly 98%, reminiscent of Egypt’s oppressive past will make it seem that a boycott may have worked at least within the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, even if it isn’t true.

The regime can avert this path by living up to people’s expectations, both those announced, such as moving towards a new democratic legitimate post Morsi state, and unannounced, such as better livelihoods. Otherwise, people, disappointed in how their vote is turned into something that it’s not, will eventually rise up against those who fooled them.

As history looks back at this referendum, the climate in which it is remembered may look like that of an authoritarian rule backed by popular support (depending on how we move forward). A crackdown without due process of political opponents to the regime, arrest of activists who dared to campaign for a No vote, no party that supported a No vote in the referendum, a rhetoric that accused those in disagreement of treason, a climate that terrorised political opponents, both Muslim Brotherhood members and secular opposition, an environment where protesting against the state was practically prohibited through a protest law controlled by a police force diligently proving its corruption, a complacent judiciary and the absence of accountability for any state crime.

Wael Eskandar is an independent journalist and blogger based in Cairo. He is a frequent commentator on Egyptian politics and has written for Ahram Online, Egypt Independent, Counterpunch, and Jadaliyya, among others. He blogs at notesfromtheunderground.net.

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  • tony Delmichi

    watching your election from a far distance, Traitor is a strong word to use. All of you are Egyptians and wish and expect a better future of all. My observation of the Brotherhoods amazed me. Greed is the word I should use. They did not understand the inclusive history of EGYPT. They won a narrow election after a second round and offering a chicken in every pot.!! They, in my opinion did not consider half the bread better than no bread at all..!! . They had the keys to the presidential palace. They did not where the power of the office. They could have been inclusive and considered the nature of the Egyptians for thousands of the years. While they were able to get the voters out, the faild to gain the confidence of the majority and those she came out to the streets. I don’t see the egyptian army being in charge. They are your army and not occupiers. While I blame them for turning the keys over to the brotherhoods before a constitution was drafted and voted on the first time around, I must note their participation to secure the country and prevent a civil war. I guess there are lessons to be learned. This is a work in progress. We have elections here in the US where 20% turn up to vote and declare winners. We got some that boycott too. You are doing fine. I still blame it on the brotherhoods and their greed.
    before I end my remark, i find it important to note. Those nonstop open ended demonstration by the brotherhoods did not help free expressions. It closed many outlets to go to the streets. Democracy or no Democracy, try doing this in a major site in the US and go on smashing storefronts or burn down government’s buildings, you will end in jail -as we say here – in a NewYork Minute..
    It takes time. Egypt, you will be able to get your bugs out. Calm down. Don’t shoot or kill each others talk and do not fight. Democracy is messy. It took us many years. Just learn tolerance and freedoms of others to make choices.
    good luck.

    • gurudev

      you are not just for away from egypt in distance. but also from reality on the ground.
      you have only the information which is fed to you by the biased and unjust media.

      • Ahmed Bata

        He is right. Morsi didn’t represent egyptians. He catered only to his base and their greed. Never again in our lifetime, will islamists be allowed to rule.

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  • disqus_qwehVZOt5U

    The American government has done a fantastic job of diverting attention away from its participation through the CIA, in colluding with the Egyptian military to overthrow Morsi’s elected government. We remember Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and all the other countries in the middle east and around the world that have been overthrown by the U.S. and its CIA, when these countries were democratically elected governments. Kerry’s pretense that he is dismayed with the military proceedings in Egypt is a nice touch for the naive and ignorant masses but we’re not all stupid. If this were a real and honest reaction to the coup in Egypt, the military aid to Egypt would have been severed long ago. Without the Egyptian military being bought and paid for to quell the call for a legitimate democracy there would not be the overwhelming force to subdue the cry of foul play by Egyptian society. It is not in the U.S. interest to let Egypt find its own way. Like everything the U.S. wants, it buys its way in and its way out. The U.S. does not want Egypt to be a democracy because it might not be able to control it. Better they pay off the dictators to serve the American 1% corporate interest, then everything will be under control. This way Freedom for the corporate criminals to continue the economic and military rape and pillage is kept intact.

  • Ahmed A.El-Sherif

    I can accept statements that the present government is adopting repressive policies ; I do not accept repressive policies. I think they are counter-productive.
    But to condemn the government’s repressive policies as an argument to prove that the Brotherhood is democratic is a huge Fallacy. The Brotherhood is a para-military hierarchical organization based upon absolute obedience to the Supreme Guide of the organization.It has an international organization with a world-wide network that is bent upon destabilizing Egypt.
    Was Morsi’s replacement of journalists and TV commentators in August,2012 by Brotherhood puppets democratic?
    Was Morsi’s issuance of a presidential decree in November,2012 placing his policies and the Brotherhood Constitution Committee above criticism democratic?
    Was the siege of the Constitutional Court of Egypt by Morsi’s thugs ,in order to prevent it from being convened , so that it does not challenge Morsi’s presidential decree and so that it does not rule the Constitution Committee’s formation unconstitutional, democratic ?
    Was the use of excessive violence against demonstrators opposed to Morsi ,in front of the Presidential Palace , leading to several deaths , democratic ?
    Was the freeing of terrorists from jail , by Morsi, democratic ?
    Also to call what happened in June, 2013 a coup is a GROSS FALLACY. Coups are not staged by 33 million protestors .
    Besides if any established democracy anywhere in the world had a Morsi-like president , how would they have dealt with him , when two opposed camps were pitted against one another , so that the threat of civil war was looming large ?
    If any established democracy had a president that was parceling out parts of the national soil to fellow ideologues of another nationality , how would they have dealt with him ?
    Not to mention that during Morsi’s one-year-rule Egypt’s foreign debt increased by one-third , unemployment surged , the percentage of those living below subsistence level increased , the budget deficit grew to crippling proportions , and the national currency lost one-quarter of its value.

  • Ahmed Bata

    It isnt so flawed a constitution. It’s an improvement over the Islamist one, and it can be changed further. Irrespective of what the current gov’t or military aim to do, a rejection of an islamist egyptian government had to take precedence. There is time now to work on introducing the democratic process to egyptians, without having to worry about the tentacles of theocracy seizing all the reins of power, or using the ballot box to dominate government, when their opposition split their vote. When the house is on fire, you put it out before you worry about any remodeling.

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