Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Egypt’s Referendum

by Elliott Abrams
January 21, 2014


Egypt’s constitutional referendum this week should be no cause for celebration. It was not free and fair; the turnout did not suggest a consensus among Egyptians; and the future stability of Egypt is in doubt.

According to the Egyptian authorities, turnout was 38.6 percent,  and 98.1 percent of those Egyptians who voted said yes. The 98 percent figure should give anyone pause. If it is accurate, it’s obvious that everyone opposed to the new constitution stayed away–hardly a reliable basis for political stability and consensus. That more than 60 percent of Egyptians did not vote, despite a huge campaign by the government, is not reassuring either.

But far worse are the conditions under which the vote was conducted. Here is a description by Tarek Radwan and Lara Talverdian for the Atlantic Council:

The atmosphere in Egypt during this period was nothing short of passive intimidation. Soldiers, police, and in some instances intelligence personnel patrolled the polling centers….The bigger questions related to the inarguably politically repressive climate in which the referendum was held….

With the referendum concluded, critical questions remain about how Egypt’s transition will move forward inclusively and transparently. With deteriorating infrastructure and conspicuously large numbers of people unemployed and loitering in their communities, many Egyptians are looking to future elections to bring about a return to stability and economic prosperity. Interim president Adly Mansour did not announce the next election in his official announcement of the referendum results, but most Egyptians with whom we spoke expect a vote for their new president to take place next. Riding the momentum of this past period, this step would be the most logical choice for the Egyptian government to consolidate its hold on power. If General Sisi chooses to run—and there is much to suggest the likelihood of him doing so—the public can expect much of the same atmosphere as with the referendum. Given current attitudes, dissenting voices will not be invited to that party either.

What happens to dissenting voices? Consider the case of Amr Hamzawy, a political scientist and liberal intellectual. In June, a court ruled that the activities of American NGOs such as the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House were criminal and subversive. Hamzawy wrote a tweet that (rightly) scoffed at the verdict:

Verdict in case of foreign funding of CS [civil society] shocking, transparency lacking, facts undocumented & politicization evident.

For this he was indicted on Sunday, for “insulting the judiciary.” So much for freedom of speech in Egypt.

The usual argument is that we should all back the Army because that is the route to stability in Egypt. That seems to me short-sighted, much like the argument that backing Hosni Mubarak, or the SCAF, or Mohamed Morsi, was the route to stability. Sixty percent of Egyptians did not agree, or at least state that they agreed; repression will not persuade them to change their minds. If their lot in life improves markedly in the near future, they may well be satisfied or willing to go along. That requires a bet that Egypt’s military has a terrific plan for economic reform (and one that will include reform of the large part of the country’s economy that the Army controls) and will implement it skillfully. Anyone taking that bet should look for long odds.


Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by EMT

    I agree with you 100 percent. It was not a democratically conducted referendum. It gives us a picture of the actual situation in the country, which replaces the previous one which was worse. Morsi was elected “democratically” but I did not trust those elections and we saw what we got. I did not expect anything else from Morsi than to advance the Muslim Brotherhood agenda, by siding with Hamas and preparing troops of terrorists in the Sinai, that were supposed to fight against the Egyptian army. He clearly showed that he was not going to respect the Israel – Egypt peace treaty.
    The way the US handled Mubarak was neither elegant nor appropriate. In my view it was utterly insulting to the entire country, as we did not take into consideration that Mubarak, despite the fact that he was not elected, maintained stability in the Middle East for over 30 years. We should not forget that Mubarak was good friends with Saudi Arabia. As we insulted Mubarak, we insulted Saudi Arabia. Mr. Sisi was one of Mubarak’s envoys to Saudi Arabia.
    It is regrettable that in all the countries where we saw the “Arab Spring”, which was encouraged by the US, the action was not well prepared and people were not ready for this change. In any case, the situation today is worse than it was before the “Arab Spring”. The US needs better knowledge of the ways of the Arab World and the Iranian mentality.
    For sure the elections we are used to in the US are different from those we see in the Middle East, but we cannot force the people to our ways, as long as they are not ready and prepared. We must allow Egypt to find its own way to its own kind of democracy, the one that fits their culture.

  • Posted by Beatrix139

    At least the government admitted the small turnout, which left them vulnerable to criticism. The army has been responsive to the people in removing Mubarak and Morsi when the citizenry demanded. The Egyptian people seem to like their army, and I don’t think Sisi will have any trouble winning a fair election, but you have raised legitimate causes for concern. The outcome of Hamzawry’s trial will be informative.

  • Posted by Dan

    “Egypt’s constitutional referendum this week should be no cause for celebration.”

    Why not? It represents Obama’s greatest defeat in his project to elevate the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood to legitimacy.

  • Posted by f m ashmawy

    This writer has no idea about the changes which took place , in
    Egypt , since the 30 of June 2013 .
    I went to the ballot box on the 14 of Jan, this year , the voting was free , contrary to your opinion .
    Yes ,38% voted in the referendum . By the way less than 50%
    go out of their way to vote in the US and the last British elections
    Why you people always misled your readers when it comes
    to what happened in Egypt ….., I wonder !!!!!!!!!!!!? .

  • Posted by ah

    f m ashmaway, I think you make a good point. I think while there certainly were some election irregularities, the general population does seem to be in favor of the referendum. In all honesty though, do you not worry that all the protests and revolutionary actions of the last years will be in vain, if another military leader is returned to power “democratically”?

    Dan – you clearly know nothing about the Middle East, have obviously never been there and clearly have no grasp of diplomacy or American politics for that matter.

  • Posted by Adam

    At the risk of stating the obvious: YES, the protests against Mubarak and his regime were in vain. Everyone should be clear that there is no consensus in Egypt on what the post-Mubarak, so-called democratic future was supposed to be like. What the MB, salafis and seculars (for want of a better word) each call ‘democracy’ are all vastly different things. The fact that none of them have much respect for actual democracy is borne out by their behavior. Or maybe I should put it differently: in a country without a critical level of consensus on broad national issues, democracy is bound to fail. This is true everywhere, not just in Egypt.

  • Posted by Dan

    Whatever you think of Egypt’s revolution or the current counterrevolution, one thing is certain. When the army shoved the Muslim Brotherhood aside, it was an abject foreign policy defeat for Obama that is not likely to be reversed. And whatever throws a wrench into Obama’s Middle East plans is plainly good news not bad.

  • Posted by Dan

    “Dan – you clearly know nothing about the Middle East, have obviously never been there and clearly have no grasp of diplomacy or American politics for that matter.”

    ah, wrong on all points. Your ESP license is hereby permanently revoked.

  • Posted by ah

    Nope, still disagree. If you had been, you wouldn’t make such ridiculous statements.

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