Posted by Contributor on January 16, 2014

Voters went to the polls across Egypt Tuesday and Wednesday, in a two-day referendum on the country's new constitution amidst sporadic violence that left 11 killed and 444 Muslim Brotherhood members arrested in nationwide clashes between pro-Morsi protesters and security forces.

The mood seemed mainly hopeful that the new charter would make the country move forward, and citizens headed to the polls were overwhelming behind Defense Minister and General Abdel Fattah Sisi, showing clear signs of national sentiment: singing patriotic songs, holding images of Egypt’s military chief and wearing the colours of Egypt’s flag.

One girl standing outside a polling station in Cairo neighbourhood of Mohandiseen stated she had just voted for the constitution because she loves her country. Two women in Cairo’s Imbaba district, the scene of an explosion on the first day of voting, flashed victory signs after voting “yes,” in hopes of seeing an end to the unrest that has troubled Egypt since the 2011 uprising. On his way to cast his ballot, another man said he wants a better economic situation to be the outcome, lamenting his meager 500 EGP salary.


Video extra courtesy of TheNew York Times.

The constitution will undoubtedly and most easily pass -- early results suggested over 90 percent voted for it -- amid a non-stop crackdown on Morsi supporters and activists advocating for a ‘no' vote. Many opposed to the constitution did not vote, and the state media has joined with a large number of Egyptians who’ve shown very little tolerance for dissent on the matter.

What’s less clear is what steps will follow this week’s balloting, portrayed by the interim government and the predominantly pro-military media as a ‘’key milestone’’ in a political roadmap towards the new elections for a president and a parliament.

Moving past the constitutional referendum isn’t a guaranteed plus for the nation’s security and stability. Egypt will remain sharply divided between the Muslim Brotherhood, now branded a ‘’terrorist organization’’ by the transitional regime, and the military and security forces, backed by a significant segment of the population.

While deemed ‘first step’ in the nation’s democratic transition, a constitution cannot help placate tensions and divisions in Egyptian politics, and it will be even less effective in resolving street-level disputes.

Notwithstanding the fatigue felt by most Egyptians longing for stability after three years of turmoil, mere speculation that an army officer might be the country’s next president raises doubts over the future of Egyptian democracy.

A lot of uncertainty lies ahead, with little indication from interim President Mansour of how things will proceed with coming elections, leaving him with the power to choose which government positions are filled first.

One could argue that these rules may already be in place, and will be announced by the interim rulers only after the constitution is approved, keeping the general public uninformed in the interim. However, it is also quite possible that no decisions on future elections have yet been made, or that there’s no consensus within the government on how to move forward.

Mansour recently stated the government is committed to holding elections within 6 months of the constitution’s approval. Officials say the transitional government is likely to call a presidential election before parliamentary polls, too.

Gaining a vast ‘yes’ majority on the constitutional referendum, backed by a substantial voter turnout, essentially means endorsing the ouster of Morsi, granting undisputed legitimacy to the ruling military regime, and giving a vote of confidence to Al Sisi’s leadership, which may pave the way for a presidential run. Holding the presidential election first would undoubtedly speed up the process of electing him head of state, and could come as early as April.


Video extra courtesy of The Chicago Tribune.

Those in favour of moving forward with Al Sisi say the country needs an elected leader to direct the government at a time of economic and political crisis. Opponents maintain that having the presidential election first risks creating a head of state with unchecked power.

The defense chief hasn’t announced his candidacy yet either, facing a number of serious roadblocks. Running for president would expose the general politically and relegate his reputation to that of a military leader. His Islamist opponents Al Sisi as the mastermind of a military coup and a bloody crackdown. Moreover, thousands of Brotherhood followers and non-Islamist activists opposed to military rule have been jailed on questionable charges in the past weeks. Al-Sisi would also be left with sole responsibility for all of Egypt’s insoluble problems, and saddled with a mandate to make oftentimes painful decisions for the betterment of all Egyptians.

That said, the military chief may not have choice in his future, depending on the degree of pressure put on him by Egypt’s security apparatus, which continues to clamp down on the Brotherhood and defend against increasing numbers of militant attacks. The military might not trust someone else to lead the government at this time, wary of a weak presidency in the hands of an inexperienced politician. The army might also decide to pick someone else, keeping Al-Sisi in the military’s ranks to help manoeuvre the government from behind. Supporters, however, see him as the only one with the charisma and ability to restore stability to Egypt; others believe the country is safe so long as he stays at the army’s helm.

As for the parliamentary elections, there’s very little readiness from any party just yet. Various political figures seem to be busier writing electoral rules to suit their interests rather than working towards building national parties or coalitions. With the lack of such preparation, let alone any promises of transparency, there’s practically nobody in the political arena showing an attitude prone to put the country’s interests ahead of their own, who would be genuinely committed to moving Egypt into a more stable future.

After passing the constitution, public consultation and lots of painful decisions will follow, none of which are likely to mark the end of Egypt’s turbulent political climate of late. Indeed, the country’s deep polarization and current military footing would seem to suggest that Egypt could head in the opposite direction.
The very crucial question of how the next leadership will deliver on its promises in the face of the people’s unmet, long-standing expectation of fairness, jobs and democracy remains unanswered. Egypt is still far from the “transition” that many leading commentators are so inclined to evoke of late. A long road lies ahead.
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Alessandra Bajec is currently based in Cairo. She lived in Palestine between 2010 and 2011 starting to work as a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in the European Journalism Centre’s magazine, The Majalla and Ceasefire Magazine among others. Follow her on Twitter.

Photo: Flickr user Mona, creative commons licensed.

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