Egypt’s constitutional referendum: results and future prospects

28 March 2011

On 27th March, following Egypt's constitutional referendum on 19th March, the Al-Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo launched the report series "Egypt after 25th January." Whilst this provided an interesting analysis, it could have benefited from a greater objectivity.


As a matter of fact before analysing the data it is important to remember that in the last Parliamentary elections, held in November 2010, the percentage of people who went to polls was barely 20%. This time the percentage doubled to 41.9%, meaning that, of the 45 million people eligible to vote, 18,537,954 Egyptians participated in the referendum. At the same time if we compare this figure to the turnout for the first free elections in Iraq, held in January 2005, and the 77% turnout for the Turkish referendum on constitutional amendments in 2010, we might be disappointed. In Iraq the turnout at the time was an amazing 79.6%. Was Egypta's lower turnout due to a lack of information? Was it because the referendum was not viewed as a true election? Was it due to the fact that only 71.4% of the Egyptians over 15 can read and write and that only 59.4% of women are literate? I would answer in the affirmative to the first and last questions.

Regarding the results of the Egyptian referendum, 77.2% of participants voted in favour of the amendments, whilst 22.8% voted against them. The number of valid votes was 18,366,764 while 171,190 votes were invalid, that is, just under 1% of total votes.
The referendum was accompanied by a clear division of political movements either supporting the amendments or opposing them, a division that went beyond the legal implications of the new amendments, touching upon features of the new political scene and the path that Egypt will follow in the future. The 'parties', or rather the "alignments", which argued for the approval of the amendments were the army, former President Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood, in other words the old establishment. These groups skillfully played on people's fears of a constitutional and security vacuum as well as the possibility of economic collapse, conveying the notion that only minor alterations would be necessary to make the old constitution more democratic. The astonishingly high percentage of 'yes'votes in rural areas where the Brotherhood holds strong support seems to confirm this notion.
Conversely, other political currents of liberals, Nasserites, leftists, together with the young authors of the Lotus Revolution, completely rejected these constitutional amendments. In addition, a Christian voting bloc emerged which voted in overwhelming numbers against the amendments in towns like Alexandria. One of the reasons for Christian opposition to the amendments was that they did not touch upon Article 2 of the constitution.
The decision to exclude Article 2 from being amended was obvious in light of the fact that the committee charged with amendments was headed by Tariq al-Bishri, who was commissioned by the Supreme Military Council and is a high-ranking, national figure with Islamic affiliations.
Aside from arguments concerning the amendments content, their supporters argue that they pave the way for parliamentary and then presidential elections within a few months, allowing power to be transferred from the military to representatives holding popular support with the minimum of political and economic difficulties. Their opponents, however, see the amendments a patching-up a constitution which became irrelevant when the revolution triumphed. Therefore, they say, drafting a new constitution to guarantee the rights of Egyptians and their fundamental freedoms is more worthwhile. The main concerns of the opponents centre not on the amendments themselves, but on their political outcome: accelerated parliamentary elections. These will most likely lead to the next parliament between shared out between the Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the former ruling National Democratic Party, with the support of the army.
The result of the referendum clearly shows that Egypt has made at least one mistake that Tunisia avoided. In March Tunisia dissolved former President Ben Ali's party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), while in Egypt the NDP is still alive and well. Another good sign for real transition in Tunisia, assuming that the process will be free, fair and transparent, was the announcement in March that Tunisia's interim president Fouad Mebazaa would form a council of representatives to rewrite the constitution by 24th July. Once elected, the constitutional council would either appoint a new government or ask the current executive to carry on until presidential or parliamentary elections were held. Through electing a constituent assembly rather than imposing a new constitution, the likelihood is much higher that multiple interests will be represented in the document's construction and, therefore, allow for a more democratic outcome rather than one protecting narrow political interests.
The fact that Egypt did not learn the lesson of Tunisia unfortunately shows that there is still no dialogue between Arab countries, even in these important times. Hopefully Egypt and the Egyptian people will learn from their mistakes. There is no more room for hesitation and now the sole solution is to empower the revolution's true authors: young people, secular intellectuals and civil society. If not, Egypt risks slipping back into the problems of the "old guard."