Commentary

Egypt: One Vote, Many Messages

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Egyptian voters went to the polls last week to vote on a new constitution, replacing the Muslim Brotherhood-penned document approved during the country's ill-fated Islamist rule. While it was clear that the voters who participated in the referendum overwhelmingly supported the proposed constitution, the significance of the moment was less clear.

For many, the yes vote meant an endorsement of the course pursued by the Egyptian army (in particular, Gen. Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, who famously removed former president Mohammed Morsi from power). For others, the vote was a clear signal that the Egyptian people are ready to move beyond the instability of the last three years towards a more modern and progressive society. But some, looking from the outside in, urge caution against over-reaching and discriminating behavior toward the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters. Regardless of the multitude of messages that last week’s vote might have carried with it, the good will manifested toward Egypt’s new leaders will only last only so long as the economic conditions of the ordinary Egyptians  begin to improve.

Following the referendum, one of the main debates in the Egyptian media pertained to the real power behind the Egyptian government, Defense Minister Mr. Al-Sisi. According to a report by Al Ahram’s Gamal Essam El-Din, for many, the yes vote was a green light for Mr. Al-Sisi to run in the upcoming presidential elections: “Analysts posit a number of scenarios for the post-referendum period. The post-30 June political roadmap envisaged that the referendum would be followed by parliamentary polls. ‘But,’ says Ali Awad, constitutional adviser to interim President Adli Mansour, ‘after the interim president held a series of meetings with high-profile public figures and representatives of political factions last month a consensus emerged in favor of presidential elections ahead of parliamentary polls.’...Zahran also believes an overwhelming yes vote will be seen as an endorsement of Al-Sisi’s candidacy. ‘I think this week’s vote is as much about the popularity of Al-Sisi as it is an endorsement of the new constitution.’”

Meanwhile, a recent Gulf Today editorial, characterized the vote as a “a sign of widespread yearning for a return to stability after almost three years of violent disorder that has crippled the economy, impoverishing many....The high turnout could be welcome news for Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who is also monitoring the vote for a sign of support as he mulls running for the presidency, officials said....The referendum has put the hardliners on the backfoot, and gives the Egyptian government even less incentive to negotiate with Mursi’s movement, already designated as a terrorist group battered by a bloody crackdown....It deletes controversial hardline-inspired provisions written into the basic law approved when Mursi was still in office, and strengthens the state bodies that defied him: the army, the police and the judiciary. It also allows the military to try civilians for attacks on the armed forces. It will mean a better Egypt where liberty will dance to nobody’s tune.”

Written for its domestic readers, the Jerusalem Post editorial suggests that the recent turn of events in Egypt is a positive one for Israel, given the Egyptian military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies in the region: “…[The] crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood spearheaded by Gen. Abdul Fattah el-Sisi were the most dramatic developments to take place in Egypt — developments that have had direct and positive ramifications for relations with Israel....While the Arab Spring set in motion important changes, the creation of truly democratic institutions in Egypt and elsewhere in the region will take time. In the meantime, Sisi’s crackdown on the Brotherhood and his plans for a similar move against Hamas in the Gaza Strip are necessary steps toward the tediously slow process of reform and state-building that we hope will eventually lead to truly democratic rule in Egypt and in Gaza. Such positive transformations would, of course, be tremendously advantageous to Israel as well.”

Still, the military leaders, especially Mr. Al-Sisi, must be mindful of the fact that one of the messages of the voters, according to a Khaleej Times editorial, was one favoring modernity and progress: “The new mandate is seen as historic and likely to go a long way in putting Egypt back on the path of representative governance. The army and the interim government have done a commendable job in restoring public confidence in the organs of the state, and the next phase of parliamentary and presidential elections is likely to comprehensively fill the void that was created during the Muslim Brotherhood’s stop-gap arrangement....The focus of the authorities should now be on the transition of power to the elected dispensation. They should ensure that the fundamentals of the new constitution are upheld. The people have spoken for modernity and progress, and the onus is now on the political parties from all sides of the divide to achieve that goal in all humility.”

Another editorial by one of Egypt’s neighbor’s dailies, the Saudi Gazette, also warns the new leadership, noting that they must be aware of the possibility that the constitutional vote might increase the distance between the two main warring camps in Egypt: “After three years of political instability and an economy in slow motion free fall, it is not surprising that Egyptians voted in favor of the constitution in the recent referendum....The vote on the constitution also seemed a vote for the possible future new president, Defense Minister Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Al-Sisi, who jumped from relative obscurity to the most popular figure in the country following the removal of Morsi which the army orchestrated, would win by a country mile should he decide to run, so endearing to the public has he become.... But rather than healing the divisions in Egypt, the referendum could harden them. While the authorities are insisting that the country is on a road map to democracy, there may be problems ahead, especially with the Brotherhood which boycotted the polls and which continues to stage near daily rallies, many violent, in support of its ousted government.”

But no one should harbor such worries, argues Ahmed Al-Jarallah in an op-ed for the daily Arab Times, since the Egyptian army and its leaders are only doing what is required of them in these difficult times: “We do not exaggerate when we say the Egyptian Army is not planning either to grab power or benefit from the situation although some suspicious circles who were the cause of bloodshed in Egypt are trying to depict this scenario.... This army of people not only toppled the rule of terrorist Morshid but also poured cold water on attempts of Washington and Tel Aviv to back the group of liars and destroyers in the name of reconciliation. They took to the squares in millions unmindful of the slogans shouted by the Brotherhood members wearing the cloak of false legality.”


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