What’s at stake in Egypt’s national referendum?

Tensions run high, but new constitution will likely pass, meaning the only question is how much of a boost it will give al-Sissi

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

An Egyptian Salafi in El-Saf village, 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Cairo, Egypt, January 9, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Amr Nabil)
An Egyptian Salafi in El-Saf village, 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Cairo, Egypt, January 9, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Amr Nabil)

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.

Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaking on state television, July 3. (photo credit: Screenshot AP/Egypt State Television)
Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi speaking on state television, July 3. (photo credit: Screenshot AP/Egypt State Television)

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.”

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