Egypt's Referendum Redux

Once again Egyptians have gone to the polls to vote on a constitution. But what this is really about is legitimizing a coup argues Bessma Momani.
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January 16, 2014
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Once again, Egyptians have gone to the polls to vote on a constitution. Only it’s not just a constitution they were being asked to consider. What this is really about is legitimizing a military coup.

The Egyptian military has always maintained that it was acting according to the will of the people when it overthrew democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi last summer. Indeed, the military went to great lengths to show the international community that it had the support of the 30 million people who poured into the streets to celebrate the end of Morsi’s government. Exactly how many Egyptians actually support the coup, however remains unknown.

In many ways, the referendum on the constitution is about getting the electorate to show its disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood's tenure in office. The referendum has little to do with the substance of the constitution. After all, the majority of Egyptians have not even read the latest draft. Let’s not ignore the sad fact that 40 percent of the population is illiterate.

But then, the military don't really care if people have actually read the constitution. The new draft is not really that different from the 2012 version rushed through by the Morsi-appointed constitutional committee. Yes, it does improve some of the language in reference to women and minorities, but it still discriminates against those who practice non-Abrahamic religions and says that Egypt must follow Islamic law.

The main difference is that it cements the autonomy and authority of the military and police. It makes the military budget and expenditures constitutionally off limits for inquiry or criticism. Furthermore, the new draft allows for heavy prison sentences for anyone who insults or undermines the military, its personnel, or its installations.

The military already controls an estimated 20 to 40 percent of the Egyptian economy, producing everything from washing machines to macaroni to arms. What is to prevent the military from arresting a competing manufacturer for questioning the pricing policies of a military-owned company? Sadly, the military regime has already proven itself capable and willing to cast a wide net on who it deems an enemy of the state.

Political prisoners in Egypt do not just include members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Journalists, civil society actors, and others who have questioned the military regime and its policies are also being held. Many of the youth leaders who helped organize the movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak are also now imprisoned for 'undermining the state' by questioning the coup and its gag order on civil society. Egypt is now one of the deadliest places for journalists to operate, worse than Somalia, according to journalist freedom watch groups. The Egypt Front Party, which campaigned against the new constitution, found some of its staff arrested as well. Liberal activists and former members of parliament, not aligned with the Brotherhood but critical of the coup have been barred from travel outside of Egypt and are under gag orders as well. This is the climate of censure prevailing in Egypt. Unfortunately, many Egyptians support the military for restoring order and ending the embarrassing rule of Morsi.

Early results indicate that the new constitution will pass. Indeed, few who would have voted ‘no’ would have gone to the polls. More worrying for the democratization process in Egypt, however, is that there will now be electoral support for the coup. In the long run, this will be to the detriment of Egypt's political development. This referendum was done to hide the real threat facing Egypt: political repression and the censure of liberal thought.