I do not normally engage in hypotheticals. But questions of “what if?” open the door to self-examination, to lessons learned from experience. It is on this basis that I want to ask “what if?” to evaluate the Egyptian constitutional referendum, which passed in January.
First, let us discuss the negative aspects of the balloting, so that we avoid them in upcoming elections. Addressing these negatives will remind us that a trickle-down approach to political reform, drip by drip, has not worked. In a society where many have rural roots, with agriculture being a pillar of their lives, citizens have become accustomed to irrigation by immersion—not dripping.
- What if some of the ministers had refrained from revealing how they would vote in the constitutional referendum and did not try to promote their views? What if those in a position of power had not wasted the opportunity? What if they had emphasized that elections must be run neutrally, without direct involvement from the government? And that the government will be one for all Egyptians, even those it disagrees with?
- What if media coverage had been objective, presenting opinions of both supporters and opponents of the constitution? What if the media had allocated more time to explaining the constitution’s articles rather than more time to incitement? (I believe the document has many positive aspects that failed to gain adequate attention—another lost opportunity.)
- What if the High Elections Commission had agreed to the participation of adequate numbers of civil society representatives to respond to complaints and irregularities? What if it had released permits early enough before the referendum so that those organizations would be able to conduct their work more effectively?
- What if security forces had refrained from arresting opponents of the constitution without justification? What if posters urging a ‘no’ vote on the constitution had been permitted, as was the case with those urging a yes-vote?
- What if there had been transparency in revealing the funding behind these posters?
I am well aware that the current tense political climate and sharp polarization do not allow for calm reflection. I am also aware that, on the ground, there were justifications that encouraged the use of exceptional measures—some of which may not have been necessary. Those with authority were compelled to adopt such measures out of caution and as a result of a heightened climate of precaution given the existence of an opposition that uses violence, including assassination and random explosions to terrify citizens.
Improvements, however, remain necessary. Critical evaluation (as opposed to justifications) is the key to moving forward, through the gate which Egypt must pass to build a modern democratic state. The succession of lost opportunities, though, remains one of the prominent characteristics of the transitional stage and will likely continue to be so.
It is from this starting point that I say that if Egypt had avoided these questions, approval of the referendum would have been between 75 and 80 percent; participation would have gone up from 38 percent to between 45 to 50 percent. This result would have been better for the political roadmap, and better for Egypt’s international image, which receives more friendly fire than hostile attack.
Just as there are negative aspects we do not wish to see in future elections, there are positive ones we should build on, especially as the constitutional articles regarding the permanent commission for elections are implemented.
- What if Egypt did not have a national identification number? What if the election was not based on the national identification smart card?
- What if the ballots were not counted in the polling station branches and instead were grouped for counting in the central polling stations?
- What if there was no presence of international and local election observers?
- What if Egyptians abroad are not granted the right to vote, along with residents in governorates different from the one cited in their national identification card?
- What if there was not a website that presents rules and mechanisms to allow election monitoring? What if not website existed to disseminate referendum and election results, to allow analysis that provide better understanding of voting behavior?
If these positive practices were absent, the constitutional referendum participation rate would not have exceeded 10 percent and allegations would have swirled around the results and the credibility of the whole process.
These positives are undoubtedly a result of the January 25, 2011, revolution, which, while they might be considered by some to be a forgone conclusion, certainly mean a lot. While it is true that democracy means more than simply conducting fair elections, these gains can be seen as necessary prerequisites, the continuation of which we must ensure even if it is insufficient for the democratic transformation we seek. We must place the list of negatives that occurred during the constitutional referendum—while appreciating their justifications—squarely in our line of vision as we prepare for any upcoming election. The white clothes of legitimacy cannot tolerate any ink stains.
Magued Osman is the CEO and managing director of the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research, Baseera. This article originally appeared in Al-Shorouk.