The Egyptian Constitutional Referendum: What does ‘’yes’’ mean?

By Claire McNear, on 5 February 2014

Egypt referendum

By Hesham Shafick

In order to determine if the constitutional amendments would pass on the 14th and 15th of January, you only needed to take a tour of Cairo’s streets. Seemingly at every meter, an advertisement appeared urging people to vote ‘’yes.’’ On all popular television channels, rarely would 15 minutes pass without an ad announcing that ‘’yes’’ to the constitution would mean the end of terrorism. At the moment I am writing this, voting is still taking place, but the results are already determined.

More important than the constitutional amendments themselves, what makes the ruling regime very eager to pass them is not the content but rather the symbol. The current interim regime came to power after a June 2013 military coup deposed the first elected ruler in Egyptian history, Mohamed Morsi. Although the coup that installed the regime was well-supported by massive rallies and media campaigns, it has struggled to prove its legitimacy either domestically or abroad. Protests by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood are now joined by several left-wing and liberal groups that demand the removal of the ruling party. Student movements have erupted. Unlike in the aftermath of Egypt’s 1952 coup, the months since this coup have so far failed to produce any economic prosperity or social reconstruction, and the new leaders have thus failed to grip people’s sympathy, relying instead on fear tactics and hate speech against the Muslim Brotherhood, administered in part by the charismatic Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces and a key figure in the coup.

But charisma and speeches do not feed people. People might tend to be risk-averse when threatened with terrorism or invasion, and they might still fall into the hands of a benign, soft-spoken military dictator, if he were to recharge their eagerness with patriotic slogans every now and then. However, the people of Egypt will expect results – sooner or later.

Surely el-Sisi knew this before he led the coup. Perhaps this was the reason he did not take the presidency for himself or establish a military council (as often happens in Middle Eastern and African coups), instead appointing the then-head of the Supreme Court as the interim president. The new government’s plan, as declared by former presidential adviser Mostafa Al-Fiki, was to raise Gulf money through a proxy war against the Muslim Brotherhood, and then use this money to boost the Egyptian economy and thus gain social support. “Eventually, people will see results,” stated interim Prime Minister Hazem Al Beblawi, arguing that this “would end any hopes for the Muslim Brotherhood” to challenge the legitimacy of the current regime. The first speech delivered under the interim presidency, given by presidential adviser Ahmed Elmoslemany, repeatedly mentioned that “actions speak louder than words.” However, none of the regime’s “actions” have had any implications so far.

The reason for the lack of results is simple: the Gulf States did not cooperate as expected. The reason for that is also simple: the United States has yet to pledge its support. The Obama administration will struggle to explain to Congress and the American public how it is that Egypt’s liberal Islamists – on whom the Obama administration based its plan of “balance of Islamist power” (as Fareed Zakaria put it) in order to battle the region’s more radical Islamists (al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.) – are now declared a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government. It will also be difficult to explain that the money spent on supporting the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood was done so in vain.

The only way to garner support is to prove to the American people that what happened on the 30th of June was the will of the Egyptian people and not a solo act of the military or its leader. Here we return to the referendum: what better way to prove this than the approval of this regime’s proposed constitutional amendments by a wide margin? Reinforcing the new regime with the mandate of the Egyptian people would strengthen domestic and international acceptance of the both the regime and the new Middle Eastern order.

A “yes” on the referendum would indicate a “yes” to the events of the 30th ofJune in front of the international (particularly the American) community, and accordingly a “yes” for Gulf support, which will further strengthen the ruling regime when the economic support of Gulf neighbors yields domestic results. This abstraction might help explain why 89% of those interviewed by Rasd News Agency who voted with any response in the referendum – in favor, against, or abstention – failed to answer the question “What is the best and/or worse article in this constitutional amendment?”