What does Egypt's 'yes' vote in the constitutional referendum mean?

The majority of voters approved the new Egyptian Constitution, but turnout was low and it's not likely to solve many of Egypt's pressing problems.

By , Staff writer

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    Election workers empty a ballot box at the end of the second, final day of a key referendum on a new constitution, inside a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014.
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Egypt's constitutional referendum ended yesterday with resounding passage of the new document. What does it mean for Egypt? Nothing particularly good.

Yesterday evening Egyptian state-owned media reported 98 percent "yes" votes for the Constitution in 25 out of 27 provinces, which should not be taken as resounding national support for the new charter. Turnout was paltry – the government newspaper Al Ahram said it was 37 percent – as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the election.

The constitutional referendum wasn't really about the document itself. All things considered, it's an improvement over the charter approved when the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi was president in 2012, though it retains a powerful political role for the army, including the right to try civilians. Instead it was a referendum on the coup that deposed Mr. Morsi last July: A "yes" vote was a yes to the military, and a yes to a removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt's political life. A "no," mostly expressed in a refusal to vote at all, was a no to the coup.

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Will Egypt's roiling street politics now settle down? Probably not. The Brotherhood has vowed to continue protests and there have been at least four deaths today amid large rallies in Alexandria and Cairo. The central demands of the original uprising against Mubarak in 2011 have not been met – particularly an end to rampant police brutality and the suppression of political dissent. In recent months the interim military government has jailed activists and journalists on spurious terrorism charges, shut newspapers, and fostered a hyper-nationalistic and xenophobic climate through government media outlets.

The other thing to keep in mind is that many Egyptians seem perfectly comfortable with this. While the Jan. 25 2011 protests were about an end to military rule, many Egyptians seem quite happy to have the army back in the saddle - not that it really ever went away.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Islamist agenda is, in fact, feared by millions of Egyptians. But the decision to outlaw the movement as a terrorist group has left the country's largest and best organized political movement with no legitimate way to press its demands at the ballot box.

Long ago the Brotherhood formally renounced violence, and was encouraged to participate in politics by the promise that it would be their route to power. But when that day came – they won the first free parliamentary elections in generations in Egypt and Morsi narrowly won the country's first ever free presidential election – the movement's time in power was short.

Now the movement's only outlet is the politics of the street and, perhaps, a return to political violence.

Meanwhile the past three years of political turmoil and street violence have badly damaged a national economy that was on life support to begin with. Though vast infusions of cash from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies, which were horrified by the Brotherhood's victory at the ballot box, are helping to pay for the subsidized bread that millions of Egyptians rely on and are helping to shore up the Egyptian pound, there is as yet no prospect for economic renewal. The country's foreign currency reserves remain under $18 billion – about half of what they were before protests broke out against Mubarak – and the pound remains under pressure, which is helping to drive up inflation.

The Constitution contains no solutions to Egypt's current problems, nor is the constant fulminating against foreign plots and enemies on the radio and television talk shows doing Egypt any good. The army is currently in the political driver's seat, with growing momentum for army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has become a figure for outpourings of love and respect from TV pundits and average Egyptians alike, to be the country's next president.

But rebooting the Mubarak-era status quo will not be easy, and will come in the face of an Egyptian public that's developed a taste for mass protest.

A new Constitution settles none of this.

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