Egypt’s strength in adversity

The draft Egyptian constitution has been passed with a 64 per cent vote in favour in a two-round referendum, which was held on 15 and 22 December, but has resolved few of the questions the country faces. The draft was written mainly by President Mohamed Morsy’s Islamist allies in the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and its parent body, the Muslim Brotherhood, on a 100-member panel convened after the Supreme Constitutional Court had dissolved the elected constituent assembly in April on the grounds that it contained too many Islamists; both liberals and Copts had left the panel, saying the draft document was excessively Islamist. The referendum does not confirm the public support the raw figures imply, as turnout among the 52 million registered voters was only 32.9 per cent, and voters even in Cairo complained of irregularities, such as inadequate judicial supervision and attempts by poll staff to influence voters. In 10 governorates, the first-round “yes” vote was 54 per cent, but this increased to 72 per cent in the second round; the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) alleges fraud, which the government denies. The NSF also contends that the low turnout undermines the legitimacy of the referendum and Mr. Morsy’s credibility, even though the President now loses his power to appoint judges and has to accept nominations from the judiciary. In addition, the newly-approved constitution transfers legislative power from the President to the upper house, the 270-member Shura Council, until a new lower chamber or People’s Assembly is elected, but opposition suspicions are deepened by the President’s power to appoint up to 90 Shura members.

The country’s problems are compounded by a slumping economy. Furthermore, the millions in deep poverty have been bitterly disappointed by the lack of economic improvement since the dictator Hosni Mubarak was deposed in February 2011. While some liberal fears may be exaggerated — the Islamist vote in the referendum is only 15 per cent of the electorate — old attitudes may only worsen things. There has been no reform of a notoriously corrupt and brutal police; ominously, the military warn that they will not let Egypt be dragged into a “dark tunnel”, and the judiciary see themselves not as public servants but as guardians of the public interest who are above accountability. Therefore, without a constitution which has widespread public assent, none of the major political actors can know their way about. Yet all these travails amount to what the Arab political scientist Larbi Sadiki calls reconstitution through public engagement. That is Egypt’s great strength.

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