Peter Hessler reflects on last week’s constitutional referendum:
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the 97.7-per-cent approval rate is that there is no overt evidence of widespread fraud. But this is why voting is only a small part of what constitutes a democracy; since the revolution, Egypt has held seven fraud-free national votes, and yet the country still doesn’t have a single government official who was elected to his position democratically. (Everybody voted into national office has been subsequently removed by coup or court decision, and local governments have yet to hold elections.) …
The most heartening thing about the referendum, though, was the relative lack of violence. Egypt won’t go the way of Syria—there’s too much power in the Army and the police, and too little support for the Brotherhood. And Egyptians have a social cohesiveness that allows them to survive despite a deeply dysfunctional government. Throughout the chaos of the past three years, even a big city like Cairo has remained remarkably safe and functional. There are signs that terrorist activity is expanding, but, thus far, the attacks have been focussed on the police, the Army, and other government institutions, rather than on the public. At five o’clock in the morning of the first day of the referendum, a bomb exploded in front of a Cairo court; the façade was damaged, but there were no injuries. The attack was clearly a statement—but a very different statement than would have been made by a midday bomb at a crowded polling station.
Marc Lynch considers what a constitution means for a country in Egypt’s situation:
The primary value of a constitution in an unsettled political arena like that of Egypt is to provide predictability through stable, legitimate rules. Democratic politics rest upon the guarantee that all sides understand and agree upon these rules of the game: Without such predictability, politics is no more than an endless game of Calvinball, with powerful players changing the rules at a moment’s notice to suit their interests. Nobody knows from one day to the next whether their political activity, journalistic investigations, protest against injustice, or organizational membership will be a demonstration of democratic commitment or evidence of terrorism. This debilitating uncertainty helps to fuel polarization and dangerously raises the stakes of political conflict. …
The July military coup magnifies the intensity of this problem, however, and may have made it almost impossible to overcome. The precedent has now been firmly established that the military will step in if it does not approve of the direction in which politics is heading. No promises to avoid future such interventions can possibly be made credible, regardless of what the constitution says. This effect will take decades to wear off, which means that the pathologies of uncertainty, unaccountability and unpredictability will continue to afflict Egyptian politics. Political actors will constantly have to be looking over their shoulders in fear of a military overthrow, which will be a defining context of their strategies and actions.
Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo imagine the glass half full:
A new democracy can … jettison or overhaul a constitution inherited from the military or outgoing autocratic elites. Since 1950, 31 percent (a total of 19) of the countries that democratized with autocratic constitutions went on to shed their inherited constitutions and replace them with new social contracts. … This means that if the Egyptian government is to represent all of its people, there must be another future phase of reform. To become a more perfect democracy, Egypt’s next political vanguard will have to wage a different type of revolution, one dedicated to institutional reform. While some of these battles may still be waged in Tahrir Square, many of them will take place behind the scenes and involve lawyers, academics, and other members of civil society – including Islamic clerics – persuading Egypt’s politicians to themselves become the advocates of a fuller version of democracy.
Recent Dish on Egypt’s constitution here.