Egypt’s Referendum: The Revolution Goes Conservative

The 41% turnout for the referendum to amend the Egyptian constitution is the highest Egypt has had in an election in decades.  The New York Times quoted Mohamed Ahmed Attia, chairman of the Supreme Judicial Committee: “We had an unprecedented turnout because after Jan. 25 people started to feel that their vote would matter.”  While just a little bit higher than the turnout we Americans can expect in a midterm Congressional election, this is nonetheless a sign of an Egyptian voting public quickening to life: Establish a clear set of issues and terms, and turnout will reflect a sense of whether, when and how people want to vote.

So, what does the outcome tell us about Egypt’s political future?  Because the voters have endorsed this constitutional committee’s package of amendments by a margin of 77.2%-22.8%, the political system can simply adopt these changes and elections will proceed as previously-scheduled in September.  The changes include shortening a presidential term for 6 years to 4, term-limiting any president to 2 terms, requiring any president to appoint a vice president, making it harder for a president to declare a state of emergency, requiring a president to be at least 40 years old, and requiring the president’s wife to be an Egyptian citizen.  The Liberal Ironist thinks that this is good because it consolidates a set of constitutional changes that will reduce executive power and because it establishes a high level of confidence about when elections will happen.  But this outcome is also a legitimate cause for concern because the referendum was a plausible show of support for the parties campaigning for or against these constitutional changes.  As the Times article on the referendum outcome notes, the only 2 political parties that endorsed a “Yes” vote on the proposed constitutional amendments were former President-for-life Hosni Mubarak‘s National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Does the 77.2% turnout in favor of these amendments exaggerate support for the 2 most-conservative parties in the race?  Yes–but likely not by much.  The young activists who formed the core of the democratic movement in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria mostly opposed the referendum–and visibly so.  What we’re seeing here is that democracy in Egypt will probably benefit much more-conservative forces than the street protesters themselves.

Last night I saw a debate on al-Jazeera English between a young woman activist who voted “No” on the referendum, a young male pro-democracy blogger who voted “Yes” on the referendum, and an older man who helped form one of the upstart secular liberal parties and who also voted “No” on the referendum.  These 3 persons seemed to have very similar politics–but they disagreed in their beliefs about what was to come next for Egypt.

The young woman–and I do take it as an ill omen that the men interrupted her significantly more-often than they were interrupted in turn–was understandably skeptical of what chance new political ideas had in Egypt when their expositors had no chance to organize, but she was naive about what a longer-lasting transitional government should look like, saying only that “the people” should rule, whatever that should look like in a country where the people have had no say in their own government since Gamal Abdel Nasser took power and built a political culture around pan-Arabism and resistance.

The young blogger made a reasonable argument–one I sympathize with–that consolidating the gains of the revolution quickly and re-normalizing civilian rule was more-important than establishing a constitutional convention without clear participatory or discursive parameters, and that the lack of experience of the Egyptian people with free and fair elections and the relative inexperience of the new political parties was a less-pressing matter than having sure terms on which those elections could be conducted.  To be frank, he defended this position far less-cogently than I just did, however, and it wasn’t clear that the concerns of the other 2 speakers about the long reach of Egypt’s political old guard and the Muslim Brotherhood loomed as large to him.

Finally, the older liberal party man seemed to grasp fully the extent to which Nasser and Mubarak had broken Egypt’s civil society and most political institutions and that a longer period of military government would be the inevitable result of the loss of the referendum and a call for a constitutional convention.  However, this man in turn couldn’t bring the skeptical idealist woman activist or the complacent pragmatist male blogger around to his darker vision of serious constitutional contention in the context of what could be a full year of military rule.

The Times report on the referendum noted a significant divided between anti-amendment Cairo and Alexandria and the pro-amendment towns and rural areas.  There is reason to believe that Egypt’s rural masses are comfortable with the Muslim Brotherhood and/or Mubarak’s old National Democratic Party.  While the power of the presidency is likely substantially-lessened with the passage of the referendum, the fact remains that the next president will likely wield reduced powers in the face of a parliament that will be less-corrupt but also significantly more-represented by the Muslim Brotherhood.  The current favorites for the next president are former IAEA Director-General Mohammed el-Baradei and the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa.  (The Muslim Brotherhood–and so far as I can tell, the National Democratic Party–aren’t fielding candidates in the upcoming presidential election.)  So, Egypt’s next president will probably be much more-liberal, but he will certainly be weaker for a number of reasons.

A friend responded to a recent post about the factions invested in Egypt’s political transition with an interesting blog entry by Ellis Goldberg.  I feel her words of equity from before the referendum more-succinctly express justified optimism than my words of equity from after the referendum:

“…(P)people will also be voting out of their hopes and their fears.  Oddly enough a similar mix of hope and fear seem to be driving people on both sides of the debate.  Fear that the forces arrayed against democracy will use a period that is either too long or too short to consolidate themselves and hope that the process of building an Egyptian democracy can go forward.  The most hopeful single aspect of what is going on at the moment is that partisans of both “yes” and “no” seem to recognize the legitimacy of the other side’s arguments.”

Egypt’s constitutional referendum was a compelling show of electoral force by the provincial masses of Egypt who exhibited far more deference to the traditional political brands than to calls by activists for extensive institutional redesign.  Does the Liberal Ironist think that democracy will still be good for Egypt if it is conservative?

Yes, absolutely–just so long as it functions.

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4 thoughts on “Egypt’s Referendum: The Revolution Goes Conservative

  1. Pingback: Libya’s Mad Dog Dictator Bears His Fangs: Now is the Time for the United States to Get Involved | The Liberal Ironist

  2. Pingback: Egypt’s Referendum on Proposed Constitutional Amendments: Details and Implications | The Liberal Ironist

  3. J-Doug

    Informative post, but I’m still not sure what you mean by the revolution going conservative. In what ways is it more conservative than the day after Mubarak fled?

    The young blogger made a reasonable argument–one I sympathize with–that consolidating the gains of the revolution quickly and re-normalizing civilian rule was more-important than establishing a constitutional convention without clear participatory or discursive parameters, and that the lack of experience of the Egyptian people with free and fair elections and the relative inexperience of the new political parties was a less-pressing matter than having sure terms on which those elections could be conducted.

    Agree 100%.

    Reply
    1. liberalironist Post author

      Sorry, to take so long in responding to this. What I meant in saying that the Egyptian revolution has “gone conservative” is that, while I agree that it is very real, the Egyptian revolution was the work of people whom are very different from the majority that would carry free and fair elections in that country. The protesters in Egypt seem to have put a more techy-savvy and cosmopolitan face on Egypt’s political transition than is valid. If you’ll forgive the analogy, it’s as if the protesters had intended to turn Egypt into the French Republic, and yet what the voting public wanted to turn it into was more like the State of Georgia. Another way of putting it would be to say that democracy does have that engaged plurality of the public it needs to function in Egypt–but that public is mostly interested in the choice between the welfare services traditionally offered by the National Democratic Party and enforcement of the conservative interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence favored by the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s revolutionaries may have secured a right for Egyptians to choose between something like these 2 different governing approaches to Egypt. This is a positive change in itself in terms of the humaneness and accountability of future Egyptian governments; however the political space I’ve just described has little novel substance to offer many of the urban and urbane youth who were essential to the toppling of the Egyptian state.

      Reply

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