The approval of a new Constitution in a referendum that took place on January 14-15, 2014 is an important step in implementing the roadmap announced by the current interim authorities in Egypt. The authorities feel that it provides them with greater legitimacy. After all, the participation rate of nearly 39 percent and the 98 percent yes vote are higher than those obtained by the Muslim Brotherhood-backed 2012 Constitution, which had a participation rate of 33 percent and a yes vote of 64 percent.
According to the preliminary assessment of Transparency International “…the political context in the run-up to the referendum impaired conditions to hold a fair and free referendum when compared with international standards.” The assessment pointed out that the interim authorities took some steps that limited freedom of expression, association and assembly, and that the space for civil society to represent the voice of the people has been greatly reduced. The Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist organisation in December 2013. According to Transparency International, government officials as well as public and private media outlets campaigned vigorously for a ‘yes’ vote and did not provide an opportunity for the opposition to express their views. Moreover, activists who called for a ‘no’ vote or for boycotting the referendum faced repression.
In spite of these problems, nearly all foreign observers seem to agree that what is going on in Egypt now is very popular among Egyptians. Why do a majority of Egyptians support the new Constitution and the repression of the Brotherhood? What does this imply for Egypt’s future?
The New Constitution
The new Constitution presents some improvements over the Brotherhood’s Constitution of 2012. First, it curtails the role of Islam in legislation and politics. Sharia is reaffirmed as the principle source of legislation, but a controversial article that gave religious leaders the right to interpret is removed. It also bans political parties based on religion. Second, it provides for equality of sexes. In the Brotherhood’s Constitution, the article referring to traditional Egyptian family was removed. Instead, language was added to ensure equal rights in all civil, political, economic, social and cultural matters, including women’s right to participate in government and be protected from gender-based violence. Third, it includes stronger language on human rights. It provides more latitude for freedom of speech and bans discrimination based on religion or beliefs. It also outlaws torture, and arbitrary forced displacement.
The new Constitution as well as the Brotherhood’s 2012 Constitution are criticised by pro-democracy activists for the special status they provide to the military establishment. Both Constitutions limit parliamentary oversight of the military budget, which will appear in the national budget as one line item. Moreover, both Constitutions allow for the trial of civilians by military courts under certain conditions. The new Constitution also added a provisional article that states that for the next eight years, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (which consists of the most senior officers) will have to approve the selection of the Minister of Defence.
Reinforcing Egyptian Nationalism
Discussions with ordinary Egyptians who supported the new Constitution seem to indicate that the content of the Constitution was not the main issue. They voted for the new Constitution in order to express their opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and their support for the military, particularly for its charismatic leader, General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi. Ordinary Egyptians who normally are not interested in politics distrust the Brotherhood, as they worry that political Islam is inconsistent with Egyptian nationalism. The Brotherhood’s performance during the year they were in power has apparently confirmed their fears.
Egyptians are very nationalistic as they see themselves as the representatives of one of the world’s most ancient civilisations and nation states. Modern nationalist sentiment in Egypt dates back to the late 19th century when Ahmed Orabi, at the time head of the Egyptian armed forces, revolted in 1879 against the Khedive, who represented the Ottoman Empire. Orabi’s ‘revolution’ failed as the British intervened to support the Khedive. Nevertheless, Orabi continues to be a revered figure in Egypt as the first nationalist leader in modern history. He established two traditions: Egyptian nationalism in conflict with pan-Islamism, which was represented by the Ottoman Empire at that time; and, The Egyptian military as a bastion of nationalist sentiment. Nasser and Sadat, two nationalist presidents of the post-colonial period, had a military background and could be seen as the successors of Orabi. General Al-Sisi comes from the same tradition, and many anti-Brotherhood demonstrations today raise pictures of Nasser next to those of Al-Sisi.
The Muslim Brotherhood could be considered as the antithesis of Egyptian nationalism. It was created in 1928 as a pan-Islamic social and political movement, partly in response to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the abolition of the Caliphate by Ataturk, which was seen as an important setback by pious Muslims who considered the Caliphate as a necessity in Islam. The Brotherhood views Egypt as just one small part of a large Islamic Caliphate stretching from Spain to Indonesia. A previous general guide of the Brotherhood (Mohamed Akef) generated an outcry when he said in one of his interviews “to hell with Egypt.” He only meant to emphasise the pan-Islamic ambitions of his organisation, but his statement was interpreted by nationalists as “the Brotherhood does not care for Egypt”.
The Brotherhood failed to assuage nationalists’ fears during its one year in power. Egyptians were suspicious of the special relations that the Brotherhood built with Turkey, Qatar and Hamas. The Brotherhood was not forceful in denying rumours (not supported by any evidence) that it was selling rights to the Suez Canal to Qatar and was giving special privileges to Hamas in the Sinai. Concomitantly, the Brotherhood attacked important bastions of nationalism such as the judiciary and the cultural/artistic elites. The judges club was in an open conflict with the Brotherhood and claimed that they were undermining the independence of the judiciary. And, Egypt’s influential artists, writers and filmmakers started an open-ended sit-in in front of the Ministry of Culture to protest Islamists’ restrictions on freedom of artistic expression and creativity.
Many Egyptians did not believe in the Brotherhood’s commitment to democracy, especially after they forced through a non-consensual Constitution that was boycotted by secularists, and after they started using some of the same repressive techniques of the Mubarak regime. They feared that the Brotherhood would undermine Egypt as a sovereign nation state and that it would forcibly Islamise Egyptian society.
Moreover, the Brotherhood’s economic management was disastrous. During their rule, growth declined, unemployment and inflation rose, and shortages of key necessities (e.g. fuel) became commonplace, culminating in demonstrations for early presidential elections on June 30, 2013. These are the people who today support general Al-Sisi and the new Constitution.
Roadmap for the Future
But where is Egypt headed now? There are at least three possible scenarios. First, some observers point to the extreme polarisation in Egyptian society between secularists and Islamists and predict a long period of civil strife and instability similar to that experienced by Algeria after the 1991 elections.
Second possibility is growing nationalist sentiment and the popularity of the military/security establishment. They predict that Egypt can become a military dictatorship reminiscent of Chile under General Pinochet. But one can argue that unlike Algeria in the 1990s, Egyptian Islamists are divided between hard-liners, who insist on returning to the status quo ante of July 2, 2013, and pragmatists, who are willing to give the new order a chance; as well as between those who call for peaceful protest and others who espouse violence. Moreover, it can also be argued that unlike Chile of the 1970s, Egyptian youth have learnt to use ‘people power’. They will not tolerate living under a dictatorship, whether religious or military, for an extended period of time.
Therefore, under the third (and more optimistic) scenario, the current transition authorities would complete their roadmap with the election of a new president and Parliament. The new elected leadership would then manage a gradual evolution to full democracy and political and economic inclusion. The process of democratisation may be long, because Egypt has weak democratic institutions and limited experience with democracy. Nevertheless, the authorities will have to take visible and concrete steps towards democracy; otherwise, they may risk yet another Egyptian revolution.