Egypt’s military-backed rulers win big, by default

Referendum paves way for return to military autocracy

January 23, 2014 10:54AM ET
Egyptians celebrate the approval of a new constitution in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Jan. 18.
Mahmoud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images

In a referendum held on Jan. 14 and 15, Egyptians approved a new constitution. The vote underscores a move toward less oversight and civilian control over the military and its budget, more judicial independence and less religion in the state. 

With 39 percent voter turnout, twice as many Egyptians as those who approved the 2012 constitution proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood — 98 percent — voted in favor. Beyond a higher turnout and the overwhelming approval, however, key questions about voter demographics and those who did not vote linger.

‘Minor’ irregularities

I observed the referendum for an American nongovernmental organization, Democracy International (DI), in Minya, a province in Upper Egypt where churches and mosques stand side by side or opposite each other on different banks of the Nile. 

Voting in this poor agricultural province was peaceful and orderly, with several minor violations. For example, all campaign posters near the polling stations we visited instructed voters to mark “yes” on the ballot. Security forces, especially those without uniforms, sometimes looked menacing. Judges occasionally refused to admit observers. Fingers were not inked correctly or checked carefully for indelible ink. Voters did not use the screens provided to mark their ballots in secret. Some voters did not even fold their ballots before depositing them into the sealed ballot box. Martial music blared from time to time at the polling station, sending a pro-military (therefore “yes”) message. 

DI observers at other stations reported irregularities in the closing procedures and the ballot-counting process. Despite these irregularities, more than 80 observers from the DI concurred that the final results reflected the will of the people who voted. 

A plebiscite on Morsi regime

How can that be? 

The answer lies in who voted and for what reasons. The vote was essentially a plebiscite on the removal of President Mohamed Morsi from power by the Egyptian army last July and the past six months of military-backed rule. None of the voters interviewed cited specific provisions of the constitution as a reason for coming out to vote. While most cited stability and the economy, others mentioned pride in Egypt and its army, “the best in the world,” as reasons for their vote. Some expressed support for Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the army leader and defense minister who is expected to run as a civilian for president. The cohort who voted skewed toward older people. We saw relatively few voters ages 18 to 34. 

Sixty-one percent of the population did not vote in this referendum. The Muslim Brotherhood and some other organizations boycotted. The government permitted no campaigning against the constitution. Those who tried were arrested. Many Egyptians, who are tired of politics and disorder, were simply indifferent. One shopkeeper in Minya, who did not cast his vote in the referendum, said he would accept whatever outcome there was. Experience, he said, suggested that you don’t get what you vote for anyway. He blamed the United States for the failings of Egyptian democracy.

Ultimately, while this referendum reflects the views of those who went to the polls, the context was far from free and fair. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, which won both a parliamentary and a presidential election in 2012, is in prison and the organization has been declared terrorist. Secular activists have also been arrested for violating a draconian law on demonstrations and have been condemned to excessive prison sentences. Under heavy government pressure, the media toed the line in favor of a “yes” vote. 

But will the referendum bring stability and an improved economy? 

Waning U.S. leverage

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has repeatedly but unsuccessfully urged Sissi, who led the coup that ousted Morsi, to formulate a more inclusive approach to governance. Sissi shows no signs of heeding that advice. U.S. aid to Egypt, about $1.3 billion per year, appears to provide little leverage. The current Egyptian rulers seem more interested in restoring the military autocracy that ruled the country for six decades starting in 1952. 

The military’s economic program is not yet clear. Analysts say it will be far less free-market and far more socialist than Morsi’s. So far, few of the initiatives launched by the military rulers have been state-sponsored big national projects intended to rally the masses behind its rule. Privatization will slow. Tourism is still on the ropes. A return to the 7 percent growth rate seen under the rule of Hosni Mubarak is unlikely. 

What should the U.S. do to respond to the restoration of military rule? 

By all measures, this is not a democracy, or even a transition to it. Sissi’s intentions remain unclear. A decision to suspend aid to Cairo should await the presidential and parliamentary elections, expected this spring. If the military permits open and competitive campaigning prior to those polls, there would be little sense for the U.S. to act in a way that will offend the majority of the Egyptian electorate. Besides, cuts in U.S. aid to the Egyptian military are likely to be replaced by oil-rich Gulf countries (and possibly Russia). 

The only returns from the billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars pumped into Egypt seem priority in using the Suez Canal and rights to use Egyptian airspace. The other oft-repeated reason for continued U.S. funding is the protection of Israeli interests. But Egypt has more than enough reasons not to go to war with Israel. Internal instability, economic challenges and the military’s comfort with the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty weighs heavily against testing Israeli military superiority.

Besides, America's aid is largely resented by Egyptians rather than appreciated. Phasing down the aid, paying for transit privileges and shifting assistance toward liberal economic and democratic objectives in an orderly way could put relations with a restored Egyptian autocracy on a better footing. 

Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.  He is the author of “Righting the Balance:  How You Can Help Protect America.”  He blogs at www.peacefare.net

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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