Analysis: Referendum to leave Egyptians divided

Given that the vote is so close, it’s likely to increase the state of polarization in the country.

December 16, 2012 22:10
4 minute read.
Egyptians vote in referendum

Egyptians vote in referendum 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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A slight majority of Egyptians have voted in favor of a new constitution shaped by Islamists, in the first round of voting in a two-stage referendum that will be completed next week. Widely accepted estimates hold that about 56 percent of those voting were in favor of the new constitution, evincing the degree of divide in the country and indicating that Egypt is likely to face an increasingly rocky period ahead.

Experts said the very close vote in Egypt is likely to increase the state of polarization in the country and indicates the extent to which President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood will face continuing questions as to the legitimacy of their steps.

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“The constitution is a disaster, for human rights, for social justice, for separation of powers, for separation of church and state, for government oversight. Of course things would change if this passes – for the worse,” says Mohamed El Dahshan, a writer and economist in Cairo.

Nathan Brown, a George Washington University expert in democratization, constitutionalism, and the rule of law in the Arab world said the degree of change ahead will depend on how the new constitution is implemented and by whom.

“This 2012 constitution, if it passes, will be different from the 1971 constitution in several ways. It will be politically more democratic and gives stronger protection to some rights. But it also tilts in an Islamic direction,” he said. “Most of all, the meanings of its provisions will depend on political practice, and especially on electoral outcomes... and how much independent state institutions – military and judiciary – begin to reflect the rise of the Islamists.”

“Whatever effect it has in the Islamizing direction may be slow, but there is potential for a fairly conservative and religious turn if Islamists keep wining elections,” he added. “So as much as any article in the text, the real question many be whether non-Islamist forces are realizing success in building constituencies that will turn out by the millions at the polls.

They’ve had success mobilizing hundreds of thousands in the streets, but that won’t be enough in the new political environment.”

Washington, meanwhile, has been sitting back and watching, taking a cool tack towards Morsi and his latest moves, but not wanting to risk interference.

“I think we should take the possibility of evolutionary change a bit more seriously,” Brown said. “Over the long run, it is clear that Egyptian policy will change. Political – as opposed to security – contacts between Egypt and Israel have already collapsed.

Egyptian leaders have begun to talk more of the Camp David agreements rather than just the treaty itself, implying a linkage of bilateral relations to the Palestinian cause. And there are some signs the Egyptian regime takes Palestinian reconciliation much more seriously. I do not think we know exactly how Egyptian policy will evolve because the Egyptians themselves don’t yet know. I don’t see any signs the US has come to terms with this change; so far they seem to have reacted only with relief and with buying time.”

Mordechai Kedar, a Bar-Ilan University professor who focuses on Islamic politics, predicted that the Muslim Brotherhood will have a difficult time claiming a true mandate for any overt Islamicization of Egyptian law. The more than 40 % of Egyptians who apparently voted against the constitution in the first stage of the referendum will continue to challenge the legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood’s moves – and the nature of the vote itself.

“Those who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood already claim that the referendum’s results are forged, and they will keep saying it in the future in order to undermine its legitimacy,” Kedar said.

“In any case, the official difference between ‘no’ and ‘yes’ will apparently be very little – my estimate is around 5 % – and such a little difference will give the losing side the ability to say that the winning side cannot ignore the losing one. All these reasons might lead Egypt to a constitutional impasse.”

While the presumed passage constitution may not have any official impact on Israeli-Egyptian relations, it shows a general direction which is not likely to bode well for ties between Jerusalem and Cairo.

“As far as I’ve seen, the constitution does not relate to this issue in particular, but surely the Islamic spirit will have influence on relations with Israel, and not in a good direction,” he added.

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