Egypt just cleared the first hurdle in the road map set down by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the provisional government set up after the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi. With results of the referendum on a new constitution, Sisi has won the legitimacy he needed, not only in Egypt but in the West that had claimed getting rid of the Muslim Brotherhood regime and of its “elected” president was nothing short of an unacceptable military coup.
Ninety-eight percent of the voters approved the constitution, not a mean feat, though it does unfortunately bring to mind the heydays of such leaders as Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi and others who did not hesitate to resort to artificially inflated numbers regarded with justifiable suspicion in democratic countries. Yet here the situation appears to be quite different.
What took place last week was more of a vote of confidence in Sisi than approval of a constitution that most Egyptians would not have been able to read, let alone understand.
It is nevertheless worthy of note that this is probably the least Islamic and the most democratic constitution that Egypt has known since Anwar Sadat. In any case, the overwhelming yes vote was a clarion call for Sisi to run for president.
The country has gone through three years of turmoil and insecurity since Mubarak was toppled; violence has claimed more than 3,000 victims and left many more wounded; the economy is in ruins, the tourists are no longer coming and unemployment is all pervasive. What was worse was the loss of hope, the feeling that the revolution that was to have brought a democratic regime making an all-out effort to revitalize the economy and forge a better future for the tens of millions of Egyptians had failed.
Today, Gen. Sisi appears to be the last resort. He represents the army, the single- most respected and loved institution in the country, because it is the symbol of its unity and the shield of its security. This is still true, even though the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that took over after the fall of Mubarak showed itself incapable of restoring stability and dealing with the economy. Once again Egyptians are looking for a strong man who will put an end to anarchy and address the burning issues plaguing the country.
This is not, however, the whole picture and Sisi has good reason to worry. He had hoped for a bigger turnout, upwards of 50%, to demonstrate the broad basis of his popular support. He got 38.6%. That is undoubtedly better than the 32.8% who came out for the referendum held on the Muslim Brothers’ constitution two years ago, a constitution that was approved by 62%.
Many Egyptians are reluctant to hand over the reins to yet another general – after Mubarak and Gamal Abdel Nasser. Never mind that according to the constitution, Sisi would have to leave the army to be a candidate.
On the other hand, the Brotherhood and its allies the Gama’a al-Islamiiya and the al-Watan and al-Wasat parties boycotted the referendum. They thought that massive abstention would demonstrate that the interim regime did not enjoy the wide support touted by the press. It turned out to have been a serious miscalculation. Had they participated in the referendum, they would most probably have gotten some 20% to 25% of the vote, showing their strength and positioning themselves for the upcoming parliamentary elections at a time when the non-Islamic parties are still split.
Not that the Islamic camp was united: the al-Dawa al-Salafiya movement, which through its Nour party garnered 23% of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections, called on Egyptians to vote “yes” in last week’s constitutional referendum. Al-Dawa al-Salafiya was showing its displeasure with the Brothers, who simply ignored it when they achieved power, not giving it any key posts in the government.
The fact is that the Brotherhood won an unhoped-for chance at ruling the country, and did not rise to the occasion. According to a recently published book, Intihar al-Ikwan (The Suicide of the Brotherhood), by Amar Ali Hassan, they have only themselves to blame.
Sisi and his allies may have won a significant victory, they still have to prove themselves.
The general will in all likelihood announce his candidacy, and will be elected handily; nevertheless, he knows that the people’s trust is conditional. He has to demonstrate that he is indeed devoting all his energy to curing the ills of Egypt; should he appear to turn the regime into yet another military dictatorship, the people might well take to the streets once more, plunging Egypt into another round of anarchy.
The Muslim Brothers will not give him an easy time. They will keep up their struggle, though it is expected to die down after a while. For the moment they refuse to accept their failure, in spite of the referendum that has transferred the legitimacy they once had to the new regime. Now that getting their militants on the streets is getting harder and harder, they are resorting to violence, drawing return fire from the security forces, with more and more victims on both sides.
Jihadist and Salafi movements are joining the fray and launching terror attacks in the best Islamic militant tradition. This will make a return to stability and progress on economic and social issues more difficult, but it is expected that the level of violence will decrease little by little. It should be remembered that Islamic terror never stopped during the long Mubarak years; in 1997, for instance, no fewer than 57 tourists were slaughtered in an attack at Luxor.
In the Sinai Peninsula, extremist Salafist and jihadist groups will go on attacking civilian and military targets, but the army is slowly gaining the upper hand, though it will probably not be able to eradicate the terrorists. In recent months the army had sent more and more troops to the area with Israel giving the green light, and they have inflicted heavy losses on the insurgents. It is reported that Egypt is threatening to turn its wrath upon Hamas in Gaza, considered as aiding and abetting the terror movements and threatening the security of Egypt.
According to the road map, parliamentary and presidential elections must be held within six months following the ratification of the constitution. It is generally thought that presidential elections will be held first.
If Sisi is elected as expected, it will encourage non-Islamic parties to present a united front to block Islamic parties ahead of the parliamentary elections.
It will not be easy. The next months will see more demonstrations and more violence.
At the end of the day, parliamentary elections should usher a new era. It will then be up to Sisi and the new rulers to demonstrate to the people of Egypt that their trust has not been misplaced.
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.