Egypt More Divided than Ever

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As Egypt prepares for a second round of voting on the draft constitution, Egypt is more divided than ever, writes Mohamad Shuman.

The first phase of the constitutional referendum is over. It included Cairo and nine other provinces with results that came as a surprise to both the civil forces (the opposition) and the Islamist forces (pro-government). In fact, none of them achieved their desired victory. None of them settled a score. The "yes" that was called for by the pro-government forces claimed nearly 57% of the vote. In other words, it achieved a shy victory. Meanwhile, the performance of the opposition improved, but failed to achieve the desired victory because of systematic fraud carried out by pro-government forces, according to the opposition.

Questioning the impartiality and fairness of the elections has further deepened the polarization and the conflict between the opposition and the pro-government forces. The fact is, that polarization is controlling political attitudes, media marketing and even legal and religious interpretations of everything that is going on in Egypt. In this context, I have seven observations about the results of the referendum — which will not change much in the second phase — and their expected impacts on the future of Egyptian political life.

First, the referendum has deepened political and cultural conflict and division. Islamists, who dominated the drafting of the constitution, were the ones who called on people to vote yes. They counted on a solid number of Islamists, as well as on sympathizers who support the project of political Islam. These are committed to vote because they believe it is a religious duty, and they are estimated to be about 10 million voters, the sum of the votes that were given to President Morsi along with the two Islamist candidates, Aboul Fotouh and Mohamed Selim al-Awa.

On the other hand, the civil forces called for the rejection of the constitution, and they only counted on the strength of the idea and their intensive media appearances. The National Salvation Front turned into a fragile alliance of youth parties and movements that lacked organization, resources and, most importantly, unity in leadership and guidance.

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Second, the adoption of the constitution by 50% + 1 margin will not achieve compatibility or stability. The simple difference between "yes" and "no" does not guarantee the social acceptance needed to ensure the survival of the constitution and the stability of society. Moreover, it encourages the opposition, the judges and the Christians to continue to reject the constitution, which does not serve their interests or respond to their vision of the separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, the relationship between religion and the state and the respect for public liberties, equality and social justice.

The irony is that the aspects of instability started one day after the referendum, as the headquarters of both the Wafd Party and the popular current were subject to an attack that was attributed to a Salafist group. Moreover, the Brotherhood reinstated its siege on the Constitutional Court, prompting the Egyptian Judges Club to announce its withdrawal from the supervision of the referendum. Add to this the fact that the opposition protested yesterday [Dec. 18] against the results of the referendum because of fraud and demanded the fall of the constitution. Thus, stability was threatened by successive strikes before the start of the second phase of the referendum, which raises doubts about the prospects for stability in the near future.

Third, despite the deepening polarization and the dwindling opportunities for stability, the election results indicate that the end is drawing near for the dominance of the political arena by the Brotherhood and the Salafists. Also, they show that there is potential for a strong civil opposition that is capable of achieving the needed political and social balance to establish some sort of stability in the future.

The results of the referendum reflect an obvious decline in the popularity of the Brotherhood and the Salafists and their ability to mobilize people, in comparison to what they achieved in the referendum on constitutional amendments (77 % voted "yes"), or the People's Assembly elections, in which the Brotherhood and the Salafists nearly got two-thirds of the vote. This decline can be explained by the decline of the people's infatuation with the Islamist solution and its representatives, who came to power and failed to solve problems related to politics, economy and high prices. These were involved in wrong political practices which revealed to the voters their inexperience and perhaps their incompetence in managing state affairs. Thus, one can say that voting "no" on the referendum is somehow a punitive vote against the Brotherhood and the Salafists.

Fourth, despite the fraud accusations, the referendum results do shed some light on the parliamentary elections slated to take place two months after the constitution’s ratification. For the upcoming parliamentary elections, support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists is expected to decline because of the worsening social and economic problems, as well as external pressures. The Islamists are expected to get about 40% of the vote according to several indicators. In the last parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists got 17 million votes; while in the presidential elections Mohammed Morsi received only 13 million votes.

Of course, it is not certain that the votes the Islamists lost will go to the civil and revolutionary forces. They may go to tribal candidates or to the so-called remnants. So the civil forces must improve their positions, build coherent alliances and go to the elections on unified electoral lists or with agreed-upon candidates in the single-member districts. They should learn to negotiate, compromise, and put an end to opportunism by some of those in the National Salvation Front, which the civil forces has formed.

Fifth, despite some referendum irregularities, it did reflect the revolutionary mood and the major shifts in Egypt’s political culture. For the first time, a “yes” vote has gotten a slim majority. A culture of challenging the authorities is taking root. Citizens are taking an active role in monitoring elections and detecting abuses. Some have confronted mosque preachers who called on worshipers to vote “yes.” The presence of women is growing, especially in the cities. The semi-official results run contrary to Egypt’s history with referendums, where the “yes” vote has always gotten around 90%. But this qualitative transformation is still largely confined to major cities and provincial capitals. Most cities, where the people have higher income and education and are more exposed to the media, rejected the constitution. The countryside however voted “yes,” which may indicate an increased presence for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists there.

Sixth, despite the crowded voting places, only 30% of registered voters cast ballots, which is a 20% drop compared to the constitutional referendum in March 2011. That decline harms the credibility of the electoral process and indicates that the Egyptians have lost some confidence in the democratization process, which has been marred by irregularities, verbal attacks, and violence. That led large sections of society to choose not to participate. On the other hand, the drop in participation also means that the mobilization campaigns by pro-government and opposition forces have been ineffective toward the silent majority.

Seventh, the public and private media played a role in the constitution’s drafting and referendum. The media followed all the details and provided polarized and politicized coverage. The media deepened the political division when many journalists chose to take sides and acted unprofessionally and unethically. President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists unfairly blamed the media for their own political mistakes. All that created an anti-media atmosphere among the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. There were threats and acts of violence by Hazem Abu Ismail’s group, which besieged Media Production City, the place from where private channels broadcast. That was an unprecedented intimidation campaign against media freedom. The Islamist attack on the media coincided with their campaign against the judges and their siege against the Constitutional Court. Thus, two institutions that oversee the government were being pressured. The Islamists want to eliminate the independence of these two institutions and use them to serve the Brotherhood’s project for the state and society.

The above observations are a preliminary reading of the referendum’s first round results. The second round will take place on Saturday, Dec. 22, in 17 provinces. The share of the “yes” vote may increase due to the rural character of those provinces. But the final results will not be drastically different than those of the first round. Egypt will probably remain divided on the constitution. Some fear that if the constitution is ratified with a slim majority, it will cause an outburst of denial, anger, and peaceful demonstrations, which could turn violent. All that could make Egypt return to chaos or to military rule.

But there is a third scenario. The National Salvation Front may win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, or at least reduce the Islamist share, and convince the Brotherhood to abandon the illusion of Islamizing Egypt and to seriously negotiate for a compromise solution to deal with Egypt’s problems and settle the questions of Egypt’s identity, the role of religion in the state, and individual freedoms. This scenario depends on the unity of the civil forces, which should improve their electoral performance. It also depends on the Brotherhood either absorbing or distancing themselves from the Salafists.

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Found in: egyptian constituation draft, egypt constitution, egypt, constitutional reform
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