Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Constitutional Referendum

            Today Egyptians will go to polls to vote in a national referendum amending the existing, but suspended, constitution.   This is an exhilarating as well as confusing moment for the Egyptian people as well as for the immense popular movement for change.  It will also provide some early indications as to the balance of political forces in the country and presumably will induce the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to indicate the next steps in the political process.

            What is exhilarating is that, as many Egyptian commentators have pointed out, this is the first election in 60 years whose results remain completely unknown and unpredictable in advance.  Choosing that date—a 60 year period—is itself an important political statement because implicitly it is the equivalent of saying that the last free election in Egypt was the one that brought the Wafd to power in 1950 when British troops still occupied a portion of the Egyptian territory.  It marks an agreement that, no matter how important one might believe the social policies of the Nasserist period to have been, political freedom was not in fact one of its characteristics.

            Along with free elections has come a remarkable change in Egyptian daily life that one can only hope remains a permanent characteristic: an intense interest in political discussion.  For the last two or three weeks many Egyptians have been carrying on deep and often quite sophisticated discussions about the proposed amendments.  Those who thought Egyptians were simply unconcerned with politics have, I think, learned a different lesson at least if they have been here.  Egyptians are quite concerned with politics and capable of thinking about them and arguing passionately now that their political voice actually matters.  Politics is no longer the shuffling a ministerial personnel by a distant and unresponsive government or almost entirely marginal oppositional demonstration to a distant and unresponsive government.  Now, all of a sudden, votes and thoughts matter.  Not simply intellectuals and the proverbial cabdrivers but many other people as well.  Perhaps the most eloquent example of electioneering I’ve seen so far was a young woman wearing a headscarf and long dress who was walking down a busy street  simply holding up a small circular printed placard that said “we want a new constitution” which implied her support for a “no” vote.

 Note the small disk in her right hand

            If feelings of participation and activity are strong, almost everything else about the vote and its consequences is vague and reflects the ongoing fluidity of the situation.

            There are two sets of issues at play and they intersect in a way that, as one prominent legal figure said the other day, makes many people feel as if they are at a dead-end.  Of course, in one way, this is not true but it expresses a foreboding about the absence of clarity involved in the transitional period in which the country is now living.

            Because no final official text of the amendments has been issued, it is not clear exactly what Egyptians will be voting on today.  Officially they will be voting on a set of amendments that open up much more space for nominations for the presidency and that place significant limitations on presidential power without actually transforming the office.  Most important at present is that the amendments open the door to a new constitution without requiring that one be presented.  In other word, the amendments make a new constitution more likely but by no means guarantee that one will be forthcoming.  So one set of issues is that voting “yes” in the referendum makes real but quite limited changes in a constitutional document that was written to be the foundation of authoritarian power.

            The other problem is that the army still seems to be planning to return power to a civilian government as rapidly as possible although whether parliamentary elections will precede presidential ones (or the reverse) is, like everything else, quite uncertain.  The prevailing thinking is that rapid parliamentary elections favor the Muslim Brothers (MB) and what remains of the old ruling party (the National Democratic party or NDP) at the expense of liberals, leftists, and secularists.  This has placed many liberals in the paradoxical situation of calling for the army to remain in power longer while the MB and NDP seem to be calling for the rapid restoration of civilian rule and parliamentary elections.  So it is widely believed that a “yes” vote favors the MB and NDP both of which have called for a “yes” vote.  Whether the MB and the NDP can actually get broad support for the leadership’s positions remains to be seen.  On the other hand, it is probably true that many Egyptians may vote “yes”cause they think it is the quickest and surest way to get the army out of the business of governing.  Their concern is that once the army becomes used to maintaining power Egyptians will be living once again be living in a world in which the army, however screened by nominally civilian politicians, effectively controls society with the help of a renewed security apparatus.

The bulk of the other parties and the bulk of the still unorganized young people who formed the leadership of the January 25 movement have called for a “no” vote.   Instead of calling the proposed changes “amendments”, they have taken to calling them “patches” and have called on people to oppose “constitutional patchwork.”  These are, of course, exactly the kinds of people who ordinarily would oppose prolonged military rule.

Under the pressure of a truly free election and the new political atmosphere the hierarchical power of the old parties and movements is breaking up.  Although the MB narrowly avoided a confrontation with its youth cadre last month there are indications that the conflict inside the organization is once again heating up.  Consequently in early elections the MB may no longer be a single unified movement nor may it do as well as its leaders and its most determined opponents believe it can.

Interestingly enough most of the likely presidential candidates including  Muhammad al-Baradei (the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency) and Amru Moussa (former Foreign Minister) have come out for a “no” vote.  For Baradei this may be largely a matter of personal belief and for Moussa largely a question of how he thinks his likely constituency thinks although elements of both calculation and sentiment are at play for both.  The noted televangelist, Amru Khalid, who is touted as a presidential candidate for the secular Wafd party has also come out for a “no” vote as has the movie star Basma whose grandfather was a prominent Communist leader the last time Egyptians voted in a free election.

One very important aspect of the vote has nothing to do with its content.  Rather it is the intense concern about the constitution as a legal document that many Egyptians—both legal scholars and jurists as well a ordinary citizens—evince.  During the collapse of the Eastern European and Soviet governments there was relatively little popular or elite concern with revising the constitutions of the old regimes.  Apart from removing clauses about the leading role of the communist parties the old constitutions were, for a variety of reasons, left largely intact until they were completely re-written several years later.  In other cases of military coups I understand from Northwestern University law professor Kristen Stilt the constitutions were abrogated rather than suspended as was the case here last month. 

One profound difference between Egypt today and those other situations is that the judiciary has retained something of its autonomy and integrity throughout the last 60 years.  As a consequence even if the old parliament and presidency have lost whatever legitimacy they had that is not true of the judiciary which continues to have significant legitimacy and popular respect.  So much so that the judiciary remains the preferred institution for overseeing elections (as opposed for example to the clergy which no one would propose oversee the elections).  In such a situation the constitution and the legal structure that it generates and that has provided Egyptians with one of the few avenues for protest over the past 30 years (which will be the subject of a forthcoming book by Professor Mona al-Ghobashi I hope), the constitution has become a significant part of the political culture of modern Egypt.

This election seems to me to have less to do with the amendments themselves than with the profound emotions that underlie all political activity.  There is significant and profound pride and joy in simply having the first free elction in the memory of most living Egyptians.  And then there are a wide range of political calculations.  But people will also be voting out of their hopes and their fears.  Oddly enough a similar mix of hope and fear seem to be driving people on both sides of the debate.  Fear that the forces arrayed against democracy will use a period that is either too long or too short to consolidate themselves and hope that the process of building an Egyptian democracy can go forward.  The most hopeful single aspect of what is going on at the moment is that partisans of both “yes” and “no” seem to recognize the legitimacy of the other side’s arguments. 

Besides the question of which side wins, the election will provide the first window into the relative strength of the contending forces.  For the first time Egyptian political analysts will be poring over district level returns and trying to gauge the relative strength of the MB, the NDP, the secular opposition, the salafiyyin (extreme Islamists), and the Christian hierarchy. 



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