It wouldn’t be a long shot to predict that Tuesday’s national referendum for a new constitution in Egypt will receive the general support of the public. This is typical of votes on Egypt’s constitution. Just as it did during the days of the Muslim Brotherhood, the majority will again vote “yes” while opponents of the new constitution will simply stay away from the polls. The Muslim Brotherhood already announced it would boycott the referendum.
So the bigger question hovering over the national referendum is, what will the turnout be, in particular among other Islamist movements outside of the Muslim Brotherhood. Or, to put it another way: To what extent will the new regime, led by the all-but-anointed-president (even though he has yet to announce his candidacy) General Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, gain legitimacy and support from this vote?
The content of the new, 247-clause constitution is, ironically, rather less relevant. It is doubtful, after all, that the new regime will be any more careful than its predecessors to respect it.
Still, the text can be considered a success for the military regime: it was accepted by a committee that included liberal parties, representatives of the regime, and the “revolutionaries” who led the 2013 summer protests that resulted in the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power.
The new constitution is apparently more secular than earlier versions. It bans the formation of political parties based on religion, grants equal rights to women, and protects the rights of Egypt’s Christian minority. It also includes clauses which allocate to the military special authorities, including the privilege of selecting the defense minister, and the authority to try civilians in military courts.
However, the Salafist al-Nour Party’s response demonstrates how little religion is a core issue in the proposed constitution. The party, considered more extreme than the Muslim Brotherhood, released a statement Monday night that says the new constitution protects Sharia law. In fact, the participation of Salafis, who number an estimated 3 to 6 million and are a prominent source of jihadist recruitment, may play a critical role in defining the new political map of Egypt.
Eric Trager, a researcher at The Washington Institute in Washington, DC, writes about the impact Salafis have on Egypt’s long-term political future. Higher voter turnout among Salafis (who do not exclusively support the al-Nour Party) would testify to their acceptance of the current political process, whereas a low turnout may indicate the sect’s rejection of the state. This could directly impact the number of Salafis joining jihadi operations against the military regime.
On Tuesday morning, thousands of Egyptian security forces were deployed on the streets of Egypt to prevent violence by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and radical terrorist organizations. But already in the morning hours a homemade bomb exploded near a courthouse in the Giza district of Cairo, without casualties. The atmosphere in the country is tense, and it is doubtful that a new constitution will stop the violence between security forces and opponents of the regime.
Supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi have prepared an enormous protest and will be boycotting the new constitution. On the other hand, the government and the media are mostly supportive of the military regime and are presenting the new constitution as the key to the country’s security and stability, in addition to suppressing all signs of opposition. Security forces also made certain to carry out mass pre-emptive arrests of adversaries to the regime and the constitution.
And so the “new democracy” of Egypt strikes for the sixth time since Mubarak’s ouster in 2011. Though it will not likely advance the principles of Western democracy, it may at least stabilize the situation and strengthen the position of strongman El-Sissi. Or, as unofficial fliers for the vote declare: “Sissi-A-Raisi,” “Sisi for president.”