Thoughts on Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum

This post is in large measure a summary of yesterday's discussion hosted by Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, with Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Saban Center, and Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at Brookings Doha. I am indebted to the Brookings Institution for much of what follows but my own opinions are injected along the way.


What sort of government is created with this constitution? The House of Representatives and a Senate called the Shura Council constitute a bicameral parliament to act as a check on the powers of the president. The president appoints the prime minister as a proxy. Therefore the president has overweening power, as it was in the evil days of Mubarak.


There is a judiciary but it has little power to challenge the president and is deeply conservative. With the advent of shari'a law as the basis for the constitution, Al Azhar University becomes the ulama, with the unprecedented and vaguely defined power to review legislation, as described in Article 4 of the new constitution.


This constitution is stillborn. For all its windy trash about political and partisan plurality, the rule of law, respect to human rights, guarantee of rights and freedoms, peaceful rotation of power, etc. --the Egyptian constitution hasn't even defined the electoral process. It exempts the military from any oversight. It has created a religious state for all intents and purposes.


This constitution won't last more than a few years. The current referendum isn't about constitution: it is a plebiscite on Mohamed Mursi.  America might not have a large role to play in all this but mostly we ought to hold true to democratic ideals and not doing our usual Deals with Devils We Know.


I previously said it's Amateur Hour in Egypt. Everyone in this situation has made a dog's dinner of what little mandate they ever had. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) forgot how Mursi got elected; they needed the non-Islamists to win. When they were campaigning, they were all for limits on presidential power and a strong parliament. Now it's the opposite: Mursi needs huge powers they say. Egyptian politics is game without rules, ending up in a game where the winners make all the rules, leading to more polarisation and more instability.


MB are majoritarian: 50 + 1%. They've been waiting 80+ years to come to power. Their martyrs fill Egypt's graveyards. Their intransigence is understandable but ultimately counterproductive. MB know their only hope for viability as a majority lies in making friends and create a viable opposition to give them legitimacy. But as Pynchon once observed, “paranoids are not paranoids because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.” MB has reneged on promises of inclusion, Mursi has acted like a dictator, annoyed all the other parties, annoyed the judiciary. The military hasn't said much but they don't trust him either since they're constantly being called in to deal with domestic strife and riots and mop up the blood. Nobody trusts Mursi. His paranoia is entirely justified. MB were created in opposition: that's all they ever knew. MB don't know how to rule but nobody else does, either.


To simplify things to the point of error, Egypt's politics sorts out into five main lumps.


1. There's MB, the old bulls with 37.5 % of the parliamentary vote.

2. There are the Salafis, a significant ultra-orthodox constituency who received 27.8 percent.

3. Despite their rhetoric, the New Wafd Party with 9.2 % of the vote are not Liberal, whatever else they might be. Wafd are a bunch of nationalist Holocaust deniers.

4. Coming up last, the Egyptian Bloc with 8.9 % of the vote, a motley and deeply divided collection of socialists, leftists and civil democracy types. They've largely fallen apart.

5. Unelected and unsupervised, SCAF, Egypt's military looks impassively over a landscape filled with these fractious civilian bozos, biding its time, hoping things work out, ready to step in when they fail.


Egypt's elections are in several stages. What's important to understand in all this electioneering, these elections are by decree. The new constitution doesn't address elections at all. These are the first free elections since 1952: there's not much point complaining about them at this point. By our standards, they're not so good: there's no finance disclosure or electoral transparency. Vast patronage structures, bought loyalists, troublesome sectarian discourse. Deck-stacking is a big problem and irregularities both real and perceived are everywhere. Still, considering Mubarak used to routinely stuff the ballot boxes, it is an improvement.


Democratic elections in Egypt are not a panacea. Egypt is sorting itself out into two camps: Islamists and Everyone Else. The MB, as I have said, are majoritarian: they are intent upon forcing their edicts down everyone's throat by the mandate of simple majority. To that end, they have been pushed into bed with the Salafists. The Salafists are not their friends any more than the Tea Party are the friends of the GOP in the USA. The Salafists have been observed trying to form alliances with the Liberals in an effort to outflank MB.


Generally speaking, Islamists have the upper hand but only in the countryside. They do well on a district to district basis. Excellent grass roots but smaller constituencies. The Liberals are learning quickly: they're building constituencies in the cities. MB may lose some seats and the Liberals pick up a few more but the Liberals have a host of problems, starting with the fact that “Liberal” is a bad word in some quarters. Liberals are seen as elitists. A famously horrible Tweet from Alaa al-Aswani


We might agree to a referendum on two conditions: MB must, one, disenfranchise illiterate voters and two, imprison those who bought votes with oil and sugar. Do you accept or not? -trans BlaiseP


Wow. That's sure to win over the average Egyptian voter out in the sticks. Egyptian Liberals are only united by their anti-Islamism. They've made bad friends with the jingoists in Wafd. Truth is, not all the Islamists are hardasses and not all the Liberals are good guys. The Liberals can't define themselves.


Abdel Aboul Fotouh is a fascinating hybrid of Islamism and Liberalism. But Aboul Fotouh has been rendered irrelevant as Egypt divides along the Islamist line. There's Ahmed Shafik the caretaker prime minister: he's a law and order guy who was tarred by being a part of the old Mubarak NDP. But Shafik represents the old power brokers under Mubarak and those power brokers haven't gone away. We haven't heard the last from Shafik. Even the arrogant MB made sure SCAF and their hangers-on remained immune from constitutional oversight.


Mursi faces huge domestic problems: all the current reading of tea leaves might be a waste of time. Egypt is hungry and the hungry are restive, as the French monarchy found out. Egypt lacks resources but more importantly Mursi is utterly lacking in soft skills. He's burned all his bridges. His administration is incompetent and overwhelmed. Mursi has no mandate: he tried to raise taxes, only to withdraw in the face of criticism.


And there is the judiciary. MB intends to pack their ranks with their own. What role will Al Azhar University have in court rulings? Will MB and the Salafis go to war over who renders Islamic rulings? None of this has been set forth in the constitution. That's a real possibility, a struggle for Islamic-er-Than-Thou between the traditionally Sufi ulema of Al Azhar and the Salafis: the Sufi reject the Salafi completely. What about freedom of speech, un-Islamic television advertisements, the role of women in society, religious police? Even the faintest wisp of democracy in Iraq and Kuwait led to Islamic repression.


Some while back, the IMF proposed a 5 billion dollar loan to Egypt, only to withhold it when the riots struck. The IMF loan will probably go through for Egypt is one of those Too Big to Fail states. But the IMF will demand austerity measures, sure to cripple MB, whose only mandate arises from its massive welfare state mechanisms. If Mursi can't raise taxes and cut spending, the bottom falls out.


How does any of this affect America? Which principles should guide us as we interact with Egypt? The Obama administration's public posture has been to back a democratic process, advocating for minority and women's rights. Doubtless there's lots going on behind the scenes but from where I sit, Obama doesn't seem particularly involved. During the NGO crisis last March, the USA could have said something meaningful. SCAF dissolves parliament and the USA confined itself to Diplo-speak, “expressing concern”, whatever that meant.


Here's the simple truth: Egyptians don't like the USA and don't like people who do. Lots of Egyptians are virulently antisemitic. They abuse the Copts. That being the case, it doesn't matter what we say, might as well come right out and paint some red lines. If we don't stand up for inclusive multi-confessional government with a constitution with a meaningful bill of rights and a free press and separation of powers and an independent judiciary, America will once again be playing footsie with the Devil We Know, as we did with Pharaoh Mubarak. And we know how well that worked out.


That said, the USA did work with Mursi on the latest blow-up in Gaza. We're not completely out of the loop. For all I know, we might be playing a constructive role out of sight. Probably better that way, anyway.


What does Egypt's new political class fear? What might motivate them to change their ways and start cooperating with each other? One word: Algeria.


If Egypt's politicians can't get their act together, the military will sweep them out of power. Then Cinderella's clock will chime midnight and the MB will go back to being a secretive opposition party, doing more jail time. And there will be no prince come searching, glass slipper in hand. It will be a dusty old shoe, slapped on the top of their heads.  And Egypt will get a new boss, same as the old boss.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Nice diary, BlaiseP


Egypt suffers power outage, could face 'dark winter' due to fuel


More than 15 nationwide power stations have halted electricity generation on Thursday due to shortages of fuel such as diesel, natural gas and mazut, the Egyptian Electricity Transmission Company (EETC) said Al Ahramonline reported.

"The fuel ran dry, leading to the reduction of around 3000 mega watt of the daily electricity capacity for the first time ever," EETC said, according to Al-Ahram daily newspaper.

Sources familiar with the matter told Al-Ahram that if the fuel production crisis does not end soon "half of Egypt's governorates will plunge into darkness".

Fuel shortage in power plants has led to hours-long blackout in several governorates on Thursday, including capital Cairo, Suez, Beheira and Alexandria.

Egypt's minister of electricity and energy, Mahmoud Balbaa, has contacted petroleum minister Osama Kamal and Prime Minister Hisham Qandil to find a way out of the crisis, Al-Ahram added.

In December, Kamal said that Egypt planned to issue a tender to import gas within "three to four weeks". Shipments could start in the summer of 2013 to help meet growing demand for the fuel.

Egypt, itself a gas producer and exporter, said in October it had agreed to import gas from Algeria and was in talks with Qatar over a similar deal.

Egypt witnessed several power failures last summer due to shortage of fuel supply and the government has insisted that the problem would not occur in the winter because of less electricity consumption.



Sad that the MB and other Islamists...

Bird Dog's picture

...turned a genuine revolution into a political power play. They're trying to paint history as the Arab Spring being a turn to Islamism instead of a mass appeal to democracy and freedom.

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

--Barack Obama, January 2009

Thing is, nobody's done this before, they don't know how.


MB is mostly a bunch of old fuddy-duddies.  They're everyone's devout grandfathers.   Here's the deal.  The Salafis have been proselytising since the 80s.  Their version of Islam is a lot simpler.  The MB come from the Sufi tradition, which is true of a lot of Africa.  You know of the fighting going on in Mali now, the Salafis are tearing down the tombs of the marabouts.  It's un-Islamic and always was, nobody should worship a saint or an idol, that's bedrock Islam.  But the Sufis have a long tradition of doing this sort of thing, honouring their dead saints.


We look at it as Islamism versus Democracy.  It's not that simple.  The MB and Salafis are not good buddies.   It's an onerous marriage of convenience for both sides.  The Liberals aren't united, either.  Fact is, the guys and girls who started the Arab Spring revolution in Tahrir Square were the socialists and the cultural liberals.  The MB only joined the battle much later.  While those kids were out there getting whacked, it was the Salafis who were attacking.


Nobody knows what they're doing.  It's currently a game without rules, as I said in the diary.  I wouldn't worry about Egypt turning into an Islamist Fundie State.  The Islamists have made a botch of their mandate.  The Egyptian military, SCAF, they're just waiting for the Islamists to screw this up and they're going to give them a terrible beating when they do.  If the MB and Salafi start putting posses on the street, SCAF will bust them, hard.  There's no reason to worry about Shari'a Law in the context of Egypt, it's got a long tradition of coexistence with the Copts and secularists.  Al Azhar University is Sufist.  The Salafis made much hay while Mubarak was oppressing them but that raison d'etre is gone.  Now, like the dog which chased its tail, only to give itself a painful bite, the Islamists must actually govern and they're just not up to the task because they're incompetent.  They don't understand compromise, that's the chief problem with basing your state on a religion.

I wish the MB were Sufis

Bird Dog's picture

But I agree that the Salafis are harder line and even less desirable to deal with. The one hope I have is that the people will question its legitimacy and scuttle it.

Mr. Morsi’s problems could start with the charter itself. If it passes narrowly with only about one-third of eligible voters turning out, the document would have legal legitimacy, “but it’s difficult to argue it would have popular legitimacy,” said Zaid al-Ali, who has tracked Egypt’s constitution-writing process for the International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance, based in Sweden. “Politically, it will be a hot potato for a long time to come,” he said.

Many countries require that constitutional referendums exceed a minimum turnout threshold to be valid, out of a belief that the fundamental nature of constitutions means that they must command broad popular support.

Some members of Egypt’s constitutional assembly seemed to agree in principle. Mr. Ali said that several members had told him that they would not be satisfied unless half of eligible voters — not just half of those casting ballots — registered approval. One member was quoted in state news media saying a two-thirds majority in favor was needed for legitimacy. But no such requirements were imposed.

A narrow outcome would oblige the president to “spend a large proportion of his time defending its legitimacy, rather than discussing specific policies,” Mr. Ali said.

Several other things. It wouldn't have gotten more 50% without the Salafi bloc, and Cairo voted an emphatic "NO" to the referendum (link). If Morsi pushes this crappy constitution, he may not be around much longer. Egypt needs an opposition movement to coalesce.

"Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

--Barack Obama, January 2009

Blaise, where you been?

HankP's picture

I don't see good things happening in Egypt, but I don't see much we can do about it either.


I blame it all on the Internet

I've been off writing for League of Ordinary Gentlemen


and coming to terms with the New Libertarians.  Kinda needed to mix it up a bit.  Sorta like that old joke about the new guy in prison.  The lights went out, someone in the dark yells "28".  A few people laugh.  Another guy yells, "31".   Lots of people laugh.  "What's going on here?"  the new guy asks his cellie.  "Oh, we've been in here so long we have all the jokes numbered."  So the new guy yells out "24".  The place is quiet.  Finally one voice from the dark:  "Some people just can't tell a joke."


Can we do anything about Egypt?  We already are doing plenty.  The USA funds Egypt's military, its one truly stabilising force.  We've maintained extensive contacts within Egypt's military since Camp David.  See, with Arabs, the only way to build credibility is to maintain long personal friendships.  Here in the States, we would think badly of such contacts, call them a bit unprofessional.   But they see our postures on relationships as sniffish and unfriendly-like.  Here's the deal:  our politicians come and go but our officer cadre stays on for decades. Our military remains stoutly apolitical.  The Egyptian military has seen the wisdom of such a stance.  


I strongly suspect Egypt's intelligence operations and our own have built up similar relationships.  I also suspect Egypt and Israel and Jordan and KSA, more than likely, have joint operations at a military and intelligence level:  notice how quickly Egypt stepped into the picture in the latest Gaza fracas and how ill-received the Qatari visit was to Hamas-controlled Gaza.  True, they're not allies in any sense of the word but they face a common problem:  the rise of Islamist nihilism.  I've given up calling it terrorism.  Everyone, democracies, military juntas, monarchies -- they're all faced with a common threat as Iran stirs the pot.


But at a public level, as I said, we need to say "Egyptians, most revolutions fail.  Don't look at the USA as a good example but a bad one.  Learn from our mistakes.  We were many states, many different constituencies, our confederation structure didn't work.  So we wrote a constitution but wouldn't address the issue of slavery and equal rights.  We paid a terrible price for that mistake, our Civil War.  We tolerated all sorts of injustice.  We backed many dictators in the course of trying to fight the Cold War.  We got involved in other nations' civil wars.  We went into Iraq, trying to put down one problem, only to tolerate the rise of yet another failed Islamic state, divided along confessional boundaries.  We went to Afghanistan, tried to solve their problems, only to find the people we were backing are weak and corrupt.  You don't have to follow our example to the letter but you might at least establish a free press, an independent judiciary, separation of powers and establish equal rights in law on your own terms.  You're headed for disaster, just like Iraq.  We let them turn into a Shi'a-Sunni-Kurdi version of Lebanon and Ireland.  It doesn't have to happen to you."



I'm encouraged by the fact that the protests in Egypt continue

mmghosh's picture

especially those by the judiciary.  I've been watching al-Jazeera TV on the current protests, and the protests seem pretty vocal.  There's an Egypt in Transition series for those interested.


To add to your analysis, there is also a rural-urban divide; the urbanites of Alexandria and Cairo to a lesser extent are anti-referendum.  But this is to be expected - the rural population is deeply socially conservative, something that the MB taps into.  


Egypt, like the rest of the Arab world, is changing, slowly.  I'm not sure the US needs to get too involved, although I'm sure they are.  Promoting positive cultural change - such as the Doha Debates - is probably all the West should be doing right now.

freedom is a fundamental value that does not need to be justified in terms of some other value like efficiency

A riot has broken out in Qaed Ibrahim,


a famous Alexandria mosque. Sheik Ahmed el-Mahalawi denounced opponents of the Islamist-backed draft constitution as “followers of heretics” in a sermon. A commotion broke out, a riot ensued for 12 hours. Accounts vary: according to the protesters, three of their number were trapped and beaten inside the mosque. This much we do know, the followers of Sheik Ahmed el-Mahalawi were armed with swords and machetes. The protesters threw rocks, trapping the sheikh inside the mosque. The weapons seem to have been brought to the mosque in several cars: the protesters destroyed and burned the cars.



The next day, the Islamists emerged, threatening to bring out militias. Sheik Ahmed el-Mahalawi is lying about what he said, Sarah el Deeb of AP is reporting there’s video of him online calling No Voters “followers of heretics”.


The Islamists have made their beds very hard. They might think they can carry on that way in the countryside. That’s not going over very well in urban Alexandria and Cairo.


The USA, as I said, is widely hated in Egypt because we cuddled up to Mubarak.  If we're to have any impact, it will be in Libya, where we did stand up to Qadafy.  

Welcome Back

M Scott Eiland's picture

Nice piece, as usual--hope the profanity in the Pynchon quote doesn't lead to the occasional blocking of an excellent read.

. . .and Don Mattingly must be fired (bye Ned--don't let the door hit you in the @$$ on the way out!).