Tag Archives: NSF

Tensions Over Egypt’s Referendum Results

First published in the New Internationalist on December 24, 2012

On the evening of 22 December 2012, Egypt watched the primary results begin to trickle in after the divisive voting process of its constitutional referendum. Early figures indicate the ‘yes’ vote,  in support of the new charter, received around 64 per cent of the final result.  Only 3 of Egypt’s 27 governorates came out as ‘no’ victories, one of which was Cairo.

The referendum had been staggered over two consecutive Saturdays after a large number of judges refused to supervise the voting process in protest at President Mohamed Morsi’s 22 November Constitutional Decrees. They claimed Morsi’s self designated ‘immunity’ to them was an affront to the independence of their judicial branch of power.

Egypt’s provisional constitution mandates that members of the judiciary must oversee referendums and elections. The lack of judicial administration was a major worry for the president as it threatened any result’s legitimacy, but eventually 8,800 judges agreed to supervise.

Nonetheless, there have been accusations of voting improprieties during both rounds of the referendum: from vote rigging, to delays in opening polling stations, to absent judges.

The umbrella opposition group, the National Salvation Front (NSF), claimed to have witnessed ‘unprecedented rigging’ , including 750 violations across all 10 governorates in the first round. The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) referred some 350 complaints from the first round to the Supreme Electoral Commission.

Despite the questions raised, the result itself will come as little surprise to most.  The opposition forces have long been divided on how to approach this referendum and perhaps it was this discord that cost them.

The ideologically inclined were pushing for a boycott on what they see as a wholly illegitimate process, whilst the more pragmatic implored a vote no. Even the NSF were unable to decide where they stood until just three days before the first round of the referendum, when they finally called on the people of Egypt to vote no.

Early reports on turnout indicate around 32 to34 per cent of the electorate, the numbers are incredibly low. To put this into perspective, the UK’s lethargic ‘Alternative Vote’ referendum in 2011 managed to get 42 per cent of the electorate to take part.

Political ennui and fatigue are sure to have contributed somewhat to Egypt’s poor turnout, but once you consider the ubiquity of the constitution in local media and the heated discussions that always seem to arise once the topic is brought up, it seems implausible to put too much weight on apathy.

The problem is that, by definition, boycotts are impossible to tally up, thus the extent to which this may have affected the final results are unknowable, especially given that thre were debates within the opposition about strategies right up until the final day’s voting.

An Egyptian man who wished to remain anonymous stated, ‘If you boycotted this referendum, then don’t come crying to us [the ‘no’ voters] about the state of this country… What do you achieve by boycotting? Nothing! You had to vote no to confront Morsi’. The man has been camping in Tahrir Square for the past three weeks and proudly states he will stay there and protest ‘until I die’ if necessary.

For now, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi have the opportunity to capitalize on this victory.  They need to desperately turn their attention to softening the rhetoric, halting the ridiculous talk of conspiratorial coups and in so doing, hopefully slow the expanding disparity between the two sides.

Morsi recently postponed the implementation of his economic reforms in order to run a ‘social dialogue’ but with the NSF having refused every invitation to a national dialogue so far, it seems like the divisions of the past month, between Morsi’s Islamist supporters and the secular and liberal opposition, is likely to continue.

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Crisis Control: Morsi’s latest Non-Concession

“No ruler of any kind, qua ruler, exercises his authority, whatever its sphere, with his own interest in view, but that of the subject of his skill.  It is his subject and his subject’s proper interest to which he looks in all he says and does.” – The Republic

That Mohamed Morsi is partial to reading Plato in his spare time is unknown, but his management of the situation – since his ‘power-grabbing’ November 22nd Constitutional Decree until its annulment late on December 8th – suggests, at the very least, an affinity with Platonic sovereignty as well as a sly nod to Niccolo Machiavelli.

After a 9-hour ‘national dialogue meeting’ that excluded both Mohamed Morsi and the main opposition figures of the National Salvation Front (NSF), it was announced that the decree which had caused so much outrage was to be annulled.  International Media celebrated this ‘concession’ as a major breakthrough in the political impasse.

Morsi’s main defence on the appropriation of his vast powers was in a need to protect and speed up the process through which the country’s governmental foundations could be laid, and in so doing, allow Egypt’s real journey towards prosperity and justice to begin.

In other words, he deemed that due process and the concept of democracy outside of the ballot box – never mind public opinion – could take a backseat while he frogmarched the masses towards a future they didn’t even know they all wanted.  Within Morsi’s decree, the most important was the sudden unassailability of the contentious constituent assembly.

The deteriorating, and suddenly untouchable, constituent assembly – almost exclusively made up of old Islamist men – worked long hours to rush through a final draft before the Constitutional Court could pass a verdict on the Assembly’s representative legitimacy.

The question of legitimacy lay in the assembly’s make up: It’s 100-strong members had been proportionally drawn from the lower house of parliament; itself dissolved 5 months prior after it was discovered that independent seats had gone to party-affiliated candidates, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

The actual contents of the final draft seemed to invoke criticism from nearly every group bar those affiliated with the FJP. “A constitution that eliminates rights and limits freedoms. No to Dictatorship” was a message printed in 11 independent newspapers.  The full front page of the Egypt Independent newspaper this week simply read, “We object to continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom and dignity.”

FJP senior advisor Gehad El-Haddad was kinder in his analysis, “It’s not perfect, but I think it s a very good basis from which we can move forward” although even he lamented the “compromising language” in some of the articles.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to have overestimated the political torpor of the Egyptian populace and overplayed their hand: a strangely naïve move that may be put down to a sudden surge in hubris after his praised role in the Gaza-Israel peace brokerage.

The masses came out as protests swept through the governorates. Opposition figureheads capitalised on the situation, uniting to create the ‘National Salvation Front’ (NSF) and gaining popular acceptance. In what is a symbiotic relationship, the people give the opposition figures the critical mass necessary to put demands to Morsi, while the protesters could now demonstrate under the political aegis of the NSF and avoid being easily labelled ‘heretical traitors’.

Meanwhile the Pro-Morsi side came out in support of the President.  The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to show the watching world that they too had numbers and outside Cairo University tens of thousands of pro-Morsi Egyptians showed up and duly answered the call.

Both sides rallied peacefully when separated, but the violence that eventually materialised 5 days ago in Heliopolis was inevitable.  The Muslim Brotherhood called on a march to where anti-Morsi protesters were demonstrating and the two-sides finally met – 8 people dying as a result.

The NSF said they would only enter into dialogue with Morsi after an annulment of his 22nd November decrees and a postponement on the referendum.  Morsi began borrowing from Mubarak’s playbook with paranoid conspiracy talk of “fifth columnists” before eventually succumbing to the pressure from the street and rescinding his decree of judicial immunity – but is this really a concession?

Those placated are the armed forces and the judges: Morsi had time to pass a law that grants the armed forces power of arrest and detainment of civilians (effective martial law); and the judges will be pleased that he is no longer above the law (a point that had them initially threatening to boycott supervision of the referendum, thus jeopardising its legitimacy).

The major point to note is that the referendum is still due to take place on December 15th.  What is arguably an illegitimate constitution has bypassed judicial scrutiny via Morsi’s initial decree and is now to be judged by the ballot box in 6 days time.

This is the reason why many in the opposition say there has been no concession.  The main point of contention was the validity of the assembly and any draft they released.  This point remains.  Instead, Morsi has rescinded his powers a week early (for it was due to expire after the voting anyway) and in so doing, offered a superficial misdirect while preserving the referendum.

Whereas the Muslim Brotherhood are, as an Egyptian journalist for Bloomberg put it to me, “very good at the ballot boxes”, the opposition are divided in whether to vote ‘no’, or to boycott what they see as an unreservedly illegitimate referendum.

In a press conference last night the NSF again announced their “total rejection” of the draft constitution and the referendum.  Never explicitly calling for a boycott or a vote saying ‘no’, they instead reiterated their call for peaceful protests to continue.

Therein lies the problem of the opposition forces, whether now or 20 months ago, they are in unison when objecting, but divided when it comes to offering answers, thereby giving the object of their ire more room for manoeuvre.  Room that, in this case, Morsi is fully capitalising on.

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