Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Egypt: For Now, Euphoria Trumps Details

By William Fisher

Millions of Egyptians turned out in record numbers, proud and euphoric, to vote in a referendum that will help determine important next steps in Egypt’s democratization.

For most, Saturday’s vote was the first they had ever cast in a poll that was not suspected of being rigged and fraudulent. They were proud that it was their spirit and perseverance that brought down the regime of Hosni Mubarak and made this referendum possible. And they were euphoric – though perhaps still a bit unbelieving – that they now had the opportunity to create a government they would be proud of.

But results of the referendum confirmed that there are deep divisions between the various groups that comprised Egypt’s spectacular version of The Arab Spring, which brought down a 30-year dictator in xmxm DAYS.

Of the approximately 18 million men and women who turned out to cast their ballots, 14.1 million (77.2 per cent) voted to approve the nine constitutional amendments. Four million (22.8 per cent) voted against them.

The turnout – 41 per cent of the country’s 45 million eligible voters – was the largest in Egypt’s history.

In announcing the results, Mohamed Ahmed Attia, the chairman of the supreme judicial committee, which supervised the elections, said, “We had an unprecedented turnout because after Jan. 25 people started to feel that their vote would matter.”

In general terms, the liberal wing of the Tahrir Square protesters, voted against approving the amendments. Their principal objection was that the military government did not allow the people enough time to organize political parties and build effective “get out the vote” programs. They also objected to having to vote for all nine amendments as either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Those who voted to accept the amendments were largely influenced by groups that had built “get out the vote” programs, i.e. The Muslim Brotherhood and the remnants of the National Democratic Party, which was the party of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.

These parties are older and relatively well-established, despite the fact that for many years the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed. Its members ran for office as “independents” and the Mubarak regime turned a blind eye until 2010, when the government arrested many MB candidates to keep them from running. In the 2005 election, the Brotherhood won 20 per cent of Parliamentary seats but failed to secure a single one in 2010.

Preliminary analysis of the votes suggested that most of the ‘no’ votes came from Egypt’s urban areas, with ‘yes’ votes carrying the country’s provincial governorates.

Many expert observers were surprised by the outcome. For example, Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East history at Stanford University and a contributing editor at Middle East Report, said, "The Revolutionary Youth Coalition, after an internal debate, has decided to reject the constitutional amendments. Polls, while not entirely reliable, indicate that a majority of Egyptians likewise reject the amendments. The reason is that the amendments address only a few articles relating to election procedures and leave the rest of the highly undemocratic 1971 constitution intact. Many believe that the first step in constructing a democratic Egypt is to convene a committee of experts to draft a democratic constitution which would be submitted for a referendum."

The ruling military council, uncomfortable with the job of governing, was responsible for the short notice given before the Saturday referendum. The referendum triggered a rapid process that will see legislative elections in June and a race for the Presidency in August.

Over the years, the Mubarak regime had created various amendments to the 1971 Constitution. Their purpose was to make it virtually impossible to become a candidate, become a recognized political party, impose term limits, and have competent and independent monitoring of all elections.

If the process proceeds according to the timetable proposed by the military council, the new constitutions will be written by the Parliament that’s elected in June.

If candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood do well in the parliamentary election, they will be in a position to exert heavy influence on the language of the new constitution.

The Brotherhood “will hijack the revolution, and they will not listen to us,”
said Wael Biltagi, 40, an owner of a plastics factory, told the New York Times. “They are stubborn and nobody knows their real intentions. They think they are right and everybody else is wrong. But that is not what the revolution is about.”

While many political players advocated for a complete re-write of the constitution, the committee appointed by the interim military rulers was mandated only to write amendments.

The government said the committee’s work would be responsive to the leaders of the Tahrir Square opposition. They want the constitutional changes to reflect clearer separation of powers, strengthening of an independent judiciary, clear rules governing establishment of political parties, and less power for the president.

But there appeared to have been little consultation between the drafting committee and the opposition as preparation of the amendments progressed. The amendments were announced on Feb. 25 after virtually no public discussion by an 11-member committee of experts chosen by the military. This lack of opportunity for input angered many of the more liberal Tahrir Square groups.

The Arab Reform Bulletin (ARB) reported that because of the huge turnout, more than 1.5 million additional ballots had to be printed in order to accommodate voter turnout.

“Lines stretched for more than one mile in some places, as thousands were lined up outside the polling stations. High numbers of women were seen voting, and the lines for the polling stations were extremely diverse with regard to age, religion, and background. Observers and monitoring groups have reported that the process has unfolded smoothly across the country, with minimal security disruptions.”

The ARB said the Egyptian Coalition for Monitoring the Referendum issued a preliminary report of the referendum, citing scattered issues including some stations failing to open on time, votes being cast outside of the regulatory curtains, some ballot boxes without locks, the un-washable ink on voters' fingers coming off, and a large number of voting forms being unstamped.

The report also mentions that Muslim Brotherhood members have been telling people to vote 'Yes' as they queue.

The referendum came in for criticism by four human rights groups, who filed complaints with the higher judicial committee alleging some irregularities during the voting.

The groups, including Observers without Borders, the New World Foundation for Development and Human Rights, said members of the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Salafists tried to influence voters during voting held for the constitutional amendments.

Even officials at polling stations attempted to convince voters to vote "yes",
they said. They also alleged that there were no judges at several polling stations.

There was little violence, despite the small numbers of police and soldiers around polling places. In Mubarak’s time, the army was normally present in significant numbers and often interfered with those who were voting or queuing up to vote.

But in one well-publicized incident, presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei was pelted with rocks and struck with batons, and his car’s windscreen was shattered. It was later asserted that the attack came from a paid mob of criminals, paid by Islamists, though no one has yet produced any evidence.

Another aspect of the referendum is providing a cause for concern among the pro-democracy supporters. The Christian Coptic turnout was a major disappointment to many who thought a heavy Coptic vote could help turn the tide toward a “no” note. But the Copts – 10 per cent of Egypt’s population or 85 million citizens -- more or less sat on their hands. Many Copts evidently thought their vote would be meaningless.

In the months preceding Mubarak’s ouster, relations between the Copts and the government were extremely troubled. Long discriminated against in a host of ways, churches and homes were burned by, it is believed, Islamists who want to establish a Muslim theocracy. This is one of dozens of issues not addressed in any of the amendments.

For a host of other reasons, many Egyptians simply had a tough time making up their minds about which way to vote. Radio talk show host Samar Dahmash Jarrah told The Public Record, “I have had many different Egyptians on our live radio show, True Talk, in Tampa. Most were active participants in the Jan. 25 revolt and all have voted differently on the referendum! Both sides have their own reasons on why they voted ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ and none of these reasons had to do with religion or being conservative or liberal. Many Egyptians who voted ‘Yes’ did so because they want to move on and pay attention to the larger issues that Egypt faces like poverty, Education and Tourism.”

She adds, “My very own family who lives in Egypt voted ‘No’ and ‘Yes!’ One household couldn’t agree on one vote and I guess this is what democracy is after all and this is what counts.”

My old friend Herb Williamson has lived in Egypt for more than twenty years. We worked together when I lived in Egypt. Herb, an American expat, is an Agri-business Development Consultant working on an international donor-funded project. I think his view of the referendum pretty well sums up the way most Egyptians see it.
“In my very humble opinion,” he says, “I think the long term (i.e., six months) consequences of the ‘yes’ decision puts pressure on the less organized political groups to get their act together very quickly if they want to compete successfully against the more established and better organized groups - e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).”

He adds: “Having said that, I think MB will have to work very hard in the upcoming parliamentary elections as many who voted ‘yes’ were simply voting for stability rather the perceived instability a ‘no’ vote would have brought. For example, my housekeeper voted ‘yes,’ because she wants stability. She has no interest in MB. I look forward to the coming six months as they will be full of great debates and arguments as Egyptians progress further down the path of democratic reform!!!”

And he concluded: “The good news is that Egyptians, both those who voted ‘yes’ and those who voted ‘no’, are still savoring last Saturday as it was the first time they had ever voted!!!”

“The first time they had ever voted” – that’s the beauty part. I can understand people raising objections to this or that infraction at the polling places. I can understand that it might have been better for people to be able to vote on each amendment separately.

And I can even understand the Army being uncomfortable with the job of governance; armies are not trained to govern. And they are particularly not trained to govern democratically. They are guided by discipline, hierarchy and the chain of command. They are good at war-fighting, not so good at peace-making.

That said, it’s unfortunate that the generals felt they had to depend only on their own internal resources for guidance. Egypt is home to a host of professionals, experienced in consensus-building. Had any of these men and women been consulted, their first bit of advice would have been: Be transparent; let your constituents know what you’re doing and why; invite their thoughts and incorporate the good ones; share your work as it progresses, not simply the final product.

While there was little consultation with constituents, there was a lot more than would have been the case under the Mubarak regime. The Army met with 25 leaders of political parties, in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood, to discuss the constitutional amendments and mechanisms for impending elections. But no one will argue that a single meeting satisfies the need for transparency.

Still, it is very early days for democracy in Egypt. We shouldn’t be surprised that the army has made some mistakes. Be thankful that none of them seems to be life threatening.

However, down the road, what will be a lot more worrying will be a democratically elected president and his (or her) government making the same mistakes.