Egypt's legitimacy test

Instead of voting on the constitution, Egyptians will most likely vote on the legitimacy and direction of the military-backed interim government and their confidence in the road map presented by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

al-monitor Members of the assembly writing Egypt's new constitution cheer after finishing their vote during the closing session at the Shura Council in Cairo, Dec. 1, 2013. Photo by REUTERS.
Wael Nawara

Wael Nawara


Topics covered

referendum, muslim brotherhood, military rule, january 25 revolution, elections, egyptian opposition, constitution, abdel fattah al-sisi

Dec 14, 2013

Interim President Adly Mansour on Dec. 14 called on Egyptians to vote on the new constitution on Jan. 14-15, realistically calling it a “good start on which to build the institutions of a democratic and modern state." Mansour made sure to say that the constitution was the fruit of the struggle of the martyrs of the January 25 and June 30 “revolutions.” Giant banners also filled the country overnight, promoting “participation” in the referendum as saying “yes” to both January 2011 and June 2013 “revolutions,” perhaps in an attempt to strengthen the June 30 alliance and put an end to the feud between various camps within it. The banners stopped short of urging Egyptians to cast a “yes” vote to avoid accusations of the state to be leading the voters.

By saying that the new constitution is a “good start,” Mansour perhaps acknowledges that the new draft is far from perfect or ideal. This may be the secret ingredient required for Egypt to pass the second transition: a pinch of imperfection and realism. The realization that it could never fully satisfy everybody. That it can neither state that Egypt is a purely secular state nor an Islamist theocracy. Because in reality Egypt is neither. The constitution merely reflects the political setting which created it. Seculars were not happy that they could not include a clear article guaranteeing a “civil state” which was pushed to the preambles and diluted to “civil rule,” then “civil government.” Equally, some Islamists were unhappy for removing Article 219 through which the 2012 constitution gave a back door to an undefined huge body of so-called “Sharia” interpretations to become an integral part of the constitution, and Article 76 that provided another opportunity through which the same Sharia body would get back access to the penal code, enabling the judiciary to apply punishments without legislation. Both texts were removed in the new draft. In the same sense, the new constitution reflects the temporary political role of the military, which has a veto power over the appointment of its own head, the minister of defense, for two presidential terms — that is, eight years — setting up a third transition period for Egypt.

The coming referendum may in fact be seen as the first formal electoral test since July 3. Those who wanted to end the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohammed Morsi’s rule claim to have tens of millions of supporters. The Muslim Brotherhood claims more or less the same, that millions support it and want to end the “coup.” Instead of being just a question of approving or rejecting the constitution’s draft or any of its articles, for most Egyptians the coming referendum will be also about direction and legitimacy. Polarization will make many of those who may even have reservations about the constitution’s draft cast a “yes” vote in the referendum to deny the Muslim Brotherhood a potential tactical win. Similarly, Muslim Brotherhood supporters will cast a “no” vote to delegitimize the interim government and military-backed road map, without much as looking at the constitution’s draft.

The Brotherhood has set a 75% minimum approval rating of the constitution for it to accept its legitimacy. But even if that self-imposed extraordinarily high limit was reached, the Brotherhood would still claim that the referendum was rigged. The High Election Commission has announced that it has so far accepted the requests of six international and 67 local organizations wishing to monitor the upcoming referendum, possibly in an effort to pre-empt the Brotherhood’s plans to cast doubts in the integrity of the referendum.

And while most elements of the National Salvation Front such as the Wafd Party, the Free Egyptians Party and the Congress Party welcomed the new constitutional draft and vowed to mobilize support for a “yes” vote, others’ positions vary. The Dustour Party, for instance, issued a news release saying that it encourages all Egyptians to participate in the coming referendum but stopped short of endorsing the new draft, saying that it would hold internal debates nationwide before declaring its official position.

Moreover, not all “revolutionaries” have the same heart. As predicted, the interim government — especially the Ministry of Interior — has done a wonderful job mobilizing support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Its rough handling of protests, insistence on issuing a restrictive demonstrations law, deadly confrontations with students and detention of activists all send daily gifts to the Muslim Brotherhood and will negatively affect the activists' support of the new constitution.

But more than any political faction, there are other elements at play. Many Egyptians want life to move on. They want the economy to pick up, jobs to be created, security restored and a return to normalcy. This is why many Egyptians said yes to the referendum in March put forward by the military in 2011, which received an approval rate of 77%. This is also why many Egyptians supported Morsi’s controversial constitutional draft referendum in December 2012, which received an approval rate of 63%. These nonideological drivers are often ignored, although they may be quite decisive. Will the same elements be as decisive for the next referendum? And while my estimates indicate that at least two-thirds of voters will accept the constitution, I hope the government will not be lured by the Brotherhood’s ridiculous demands into the trap of mobilizing state resources to induce an even higher percentage which may initially look nicer but the net result will be to delegitimize a process which is in deep need of legitimacy.

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