Egyptians vote yes – without much choice

There are apparently no official figures yet from Egypt’s constitutional referendum – Al Jazeera reports the electoral commission saying that “Final results will be announced within 72 hours”, which gives them plenty of leeway. But there have already been a variety of more or less speculative statements on the only thing that matters, namely the turnout.

Although some reports still give the impression that the result is important, everyone knows that the constitution will be overwhelmingly approved. There has been essentially no “No” campaign; those who oppose the constitution (or the military rulers who drafted it) are advocating a boycott. The BBC reports that “Some 400 people are said to have been arrested over the two days for disrupting the vote,” and in the military’s eyes, supporting a “No” vote is equivalent to disruption.

One report says that a voter in Cairo was arrested for writing “no to military trials” on his ballot paper, which speaks volumes about the way the vote is being conducted as well as about the issues at stake.

So the only real, if imperfect, reflection of Egyptian public opinion is the number who bother to turn out. Last time Egyptians went through this exercise, just over a year ago, 32.9% voted, of whom 63.8% said “Yes”.

That was for a constitution drafted largely by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has since been overthrown in a military coup and then outlawed as a “terrorist” organisation. One of the refinements in the new constitution is a ban on political parties “formed on the basis of religion, gender, race or geography,” which is obviously intended to rule out the Brotherhood for the future as well.

But that’s not to say that the Brotherhood’s constitution didn’t have its problems as well. Juan Cole, who has been an admirable voice of reason on matters Egyptian, describes it as “a bad constitution produced by a bad process.” In a number of respects, including improved protection for freedom of religion and for the status of women, the military’s draft is a distinct improvement.

So there’s nothing strange in the idea that a fair referendum – which this certainly is not – would approve the new constitution more emphatically than with the 2012 vote. The military, however, wants as big a turnout as possible in an effort to legitimise both the coup and the subsequent repression of the Brotherhood and its supporters.

Some observers have noted that polling stations seemed less busy than at the last referendum, but that may be outweighed by there being more of them, with more liberal rules about where people can vote. One Egyptian minister was quoted saying that 28% voted on the first of the two days of voting, while a “senior interior ministry official” said that total turnout “may exceed 55%”. According to the BBC, “State TV said initial results showed 50% turnout with more than 90% voting yes.”

There’s obviously some difficulty in motivating voters when the result is such a foregone conclusion. And even the turnout, although interesting, makes little difference in the end. The army has a firm grip on the levers of power, and although the new constitution may impose some constraints down the track, for the immediate future it seems likely to secure the election of coup leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the next president.

For those (like me) who greeted the Arab Spring with high hopes, it can be quite discouraging. Particularly since, as I said in Crikey on Tuesday, “Egypt is easily the leading Arab power: a democratic Egypt would be a difficult example to ignore. But its people have shown that they are a force to be reckoned with, and any future ruler will have to tread carefully. Egyptian democracy should not be written off just yet.”



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