The Egyptian Vote: Good News and Worrying Signs

By Hany Khalil
Mar 23, 2011

By Hany Khalil

An elections official counts ballots in Cairo.

In Egypt last Saturday, five weeks after the revolution forced out Mubarak, the ruling Military Council sponsored a referendum on a package of nine amendments to the Constitution.

The amendments passed by a large margin. With 41% of the electorate turning out, 77% voted in favor. The approval paves the way for  parliamentary elections in June, presidential elections in the fall, and the writing of a new constitution by the newly elected parliament within a year.

The Good News

There were several positives to this vote:

  • The fact that the vote even occurred reflected the power of the mass struggle for democracy in Egypt. It was the first ever vote in Egypt fairly free of overt coercion and ballot manipulation on the day of the vote.
  • There was a major increase in voter participation compared to the days of fraudulent elections under the Mubarak regime.
  • The amendments take steps toward both widening competition for the presidency and putting some limits on an imperial presidency. The presidential term was shortened to four years with a limit of two terms, judicial supervision of all elections and referenda is now required, and it will not be as easy for the president to use emergency laws to crush all opposition in the name of fighting terrorism.

Reasons to Worry
However, there are many reasons to be concerned about this vote and its aftermath. Most voters did not see the amendments until election day, making it difficult to make an informed choice. Some campaign posters framed the election in religious terms, contending that a vote against the amendments would be un-Islamic.

Most important, the coalition that forced Mubarak from power experienced a significant rupture, with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists joining the remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party in calling for a yes vote, while the largely secular youth, liberal and left forces, and Coptic Christians (10% - 15% of Egyptians) backed a no vote. Opponents do not believe that in general the amendments are bad in and of themselves; rather, they argue that the quick electoral timetable set into motion by ratification of the amendments plays to the advantage of the most organized groups -- namely, a revamped NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood. Should those groups gain control of parliament in June, they will gain the right to rewrite the Constitution, possibly putting in jeopardy the vision of a democracy based on genuine popular rule, greater equality, and protection of civil liberties and civil rights that were the goals of the revolution.

In addition, there is some evidence of a rural/urban divide in how the vote came down, with rural areas voting strongly in favor of the amendments, suggesting that the secular revolutionaries have little influence outside of the main cities.

Many, including Ahmed Maher, a main organizer of the revolution with the April 6 movement, worry about what all this portends for where the revolution is going. Maher and other leaders knew well that bringing Mubarak down -- important as achieving that goal would be -- would be just the first step in a long-term struggle to end the regime and build a democratic system. In the wake of the amendments' passage, the road to democracy may have just become more difficult to navigate.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Hany Khalil has worked with War Times since its founding. He has organized in the peace, racial justice, and economic justice movements since he was a college student in the 1980s. In the 2000s he worked as Organizing Coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, the largest and broadest national peace coalition working to end the Iraq war and change U.S. foreign policy. He now lives in Houston, TX.

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