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.