On Egypt’s constitutional referendum

In Egypt, the vote begins today on a new constitution that was drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood and disavowed by almost every other segment of society.  Each time Egyptians have voted in the nearly two years since the revolution the choices available to them have been inferior to the dreams and aspirations they had during those eighteen days of protest.  The parliamentary elections were an exercise in Tammany Hall-style machine politics; the run-off presidential elections became, for many, a negative choice of which candidate they hated least; and now the constitutional referendum threatens to result in a loophole-ridden founding document that even its authors must recognize is poorly structured, pushed through in the face of fierce opposition by a wide range of groups whose participation is essential in a diverse society.

If I’d had a vote in the presidential elections, I would have voted for Mohamed Morsi.  As I wrote at the time, I don’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood and wasn’t sure what Morsi would do but I felt I knew exactly what the alternative — feloul candidate Ahmed Shafiq — would do and I didn’t like it.  Just after I returned from Cairo in September, Morsi gave a long interview to the New York Times in which he talked (sensibly, I thought) about the importance of building up the integrity of the political process and civic institutions.  After decades of quasi-charismatic one-man rule, this focus on the system as opposed to personality struck me as hugely encouraging.

MB supremo Essam El-Arian, too, seemed to advocate a more consensual and less bullying form of political progress than had been practiced by the old regime, telling the Washington Post (via The Arabist) in the run-up to the parliamentary elections:

Will the Muslim Brotherhood win the next election because it is so organized?

The next election must represent all political factions, even weak groups. We as the Muslim Brotherhood are keen to have a coalition to go to the elections together to have a parliament that represents all Egyptians, not only powerful groups. All Egyptians must be represented — Muslims, Coptics, leftists, liberalists, nationalists, Islamists — all must be there to have a neutral committee to write the constitution. This is very important for a real democracy.

This strategy of political restraint by the MB was not just desirable but wise: the MB had a virtual monopoly on opposition during the Mubarak years so exited the revolution in the strongest political position but its long-term credibility depended on serving a national rather than sectarian constituency.

Now they appear to have a different strategy, which is that Morsi’s election gives the MB a democratic mandate to force through its preferred policies and constitution.  There’s a lot wrong with that thinking, not least that Egypt currently has few of the checks and balances that would ordinarily constrain a democratic president.  Parliament was dissolved, so there is no legislative branch, and if Morsi had had his way the judicial branch would have been rendered toothless.  This is no way to govern and nothing like the integrity of the system that Morsi talked about previously.

Egyptians have lived without constitutional protections for decades, as large parts of the already flawed Mubarak-era constitution were suspended by the never-ending Emergency Law.  The MB, in particular, paid dearly for that constitutional vacuum during its underground years.  They should win the constitutional referendum that starts today just on the strength of their ground game, but this is the moment they lost their claim to safeguard the goals of the revolution.


The photograph above reads “Down with the next president” and was taken by the well-known blogger and activist Hossam El-Hamalawy in 2011, before Mohamed Morsi was elected.  Prescient.

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