Critical Lessons from Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum

The first round of the constitutional referendum last week was a perfect microcosm of everything Egyptian — it was majestic in scale, profound in meaning and consequence, erratic and messy in implementation, unpredictable in outcome, and entertaining in every respect.

The nature and speed of events in Egypt continue to take precedence in my mind over all other significant — even historic — political dynamics across the region, including noteworthy developments in Syria, Kuwait, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and others. The first round of the constitutional referendum last week was a perfect microcosm of everything Egyptian — it was majestic in scale, profound in meaning and consequence, erratic and messy in implementation, unpredictable in outcome, and entertaining in every respect. Four critical aspects of the first round stand out.

First is the continued weak political performance of the Muslim Brotherhood in office. They seem to have panicked and resorted to thuggery at the highest and lowest levels of national politics, which are presidential action and street fighting. By trying to ram through a widely contested and rather crude draft constitution the Muslim Brotherhood has revealed some of its structural weaknesses and political immaturity. Astoundingly, President Mohammed Morsi and his colleagues in the Islamist movements have simultaneously deeply damaged the credibility of their movement among many in the country, and also momentarily weakened the standing and power of the Egyptian presidency.

This child-like, tantrum-based performance clarifies many aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood, and therefore weakens it in future political contests. This is not new, as its support among the public has been dropping steadily from its high point in late 2011, when it won around 38% of votes in the parliamentary election. The referendum aftermath will probably see the Muslim Brotherhood’s support shrink to its core supporters, perhaps around 25% or so of the population.

Second, many opposition, progressive, nationalist and secular parties in Egypt have started to work together to offer voters a credible alternative to the Islamists (both the Muslim Brotherhood and the more hardline Salafists). The National Salvation Front that groups some of the leading opposition, mostly non-Islamist, political forces achieved several significant milestones at once in the past three weeks: they combined their forces into a single movement, at least for now; politically and on the streets, they took a hard public position against the constitutional draft, the rushed referendum and Morsi’s decree that gave him unchallenged presidential powers; they forced the president to rescind his power-grabbing decree; and they mobilized their supporters to vote against the draft constitution in large numbers.

All of these actions indicate that we are starting to see the creation of a political system in Egypt that includes four main organized groups: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, the secular opposition, and the old guard Mubarak-National Democratic Party supporters and silent majority-type middle class and lower income Egyptians who have yet to regroup and coalesce into a single force. This will make the upcoming parliamentary elections much more closely contested, and may see the Muslim Brotherhood lose its plurality.

Third, Egypt is nearing or even starting to cross a threshold in the role of the armed forces in public life, much sooner than may have been expected. The effective non-role of the military that stayed in the background and repeated its desire to work only in the realm of preserving national security is significant and augurs well for the continued development of a rule of law-based pluralistic democracy in Egypt. This may be a temporary mirage, but my guess is that it is a real reflection of the new social contract that allows the military to preserve its perks and economic activity, and control of the defense ministry, if it stays out of direct politics.

Fourth, the narrow majority of 57 percent “yes” ballots in the first round, combined with the intense contestation taking place and the very public protests of the referendum process by many judges, all indicate that this is only the beginning of a much more complex and drawn out political process. The deep divisions in the country and the need to adopt a constitution that garners a much larger national consensus suggest that the referendum in fact marks the beginning of the process to define a credible constitution, rather than its culmination.

Many Egyptians voted “yes” because they want to move on with the process of completing their national political and democratic reconfiguration, regardless of flaws in the draft they were offered. Because of the flawed content and procedure of this referendum, Egyptians will now slowly and democratically refine their national consensus on key issues that remain vague in the current constitutional draft, related to personal liberties, the role of religion and the military in state affairs, protection of minorities and other key matters.

These historic developments in the past three weeks may mark this as the most important single moment in the political transformation of the past two years in Egypt (following the transfer of military rule to the elected civilian authorities last summer) because of three critical things at once: This moment started to redress some of the exaggerated pro-Islamist imbalances that defined 2011-12, it gave birth to a more balanced political infrastructure, and it moved the country towards the constitutional anchorage it needs to continue the process of normal state-building.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of 
The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global