The Battle for Egypt’s Future

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Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
Mohammed Badie, head of the Muslim Brotherhood, speaking to the press outside a polling station in Cairo, March 19, 2011

To judge by the streets of Cairo on the morning of March 19, it seemed that a good chunk of my city’s 19 million residents were taking part in the constitutional referendum. The roaring old school buses that rattle my windows when they pass in the morning were not to be heard, there were hardly any cars on the usually clogged streets, and the daily flood of people making their way through the dense web of thoroughfares and alleyways was absent. The only signs of traffic or crowds were around the hundreds of designated polling stations. It had been nearly five weeks since protesters in Tahrir Square had brought down President Hosni Mubarak, and Egyptians throughout the country were voting on an all- or-nothing package of nine constitutional amendments. A win for the yes votes promised to lead to parliamentary elections as early as June, returning power to a civilian government following the military’s temporary takeover. If the no votes prevailed, it might start the process of political reform over again, or it might cause the military to pursue a different strategy.

After decades of oppressive rule, in which elections had been pro forma exercises marked by violence and fraud, Egyptians were elated that their ballots would finally count. Many were voting for the first time in their lives. When the results were announced the next day, they seemed unambiguous: 77.2 percent had voted for the amendments—ostensibly an endorsement for reform—and just 22.8 percent had voted against them. The reality, as I had discovered in the days leading up to March 19, was far more complicated. Only 18 million of Egypt’s eligible 45 million voters participated (though, as many have reported, this was the country’s highest turnout on record). In fact, most of the activists who had had a leading part in the revolution dismissed the referendum as cosmetic, when what was needed, they felt, was an entirely new constitution. Moreover, many who voted yes had little sense how these amendments were going to change the country’s political life.

The referendum had been conceived by the Egyptian armed forces as part of its response to the youth protesters, who were pressing for sweeping reforms to the political system that had sustained Mubarak in power. After it formally assumed power on February 11, the day Mubarak stepped down, the military had suspended the 1971 constitution and appointed a constitutional committee to address these demands. Instructed by the military to “get this over with” as soon as possible, the eight members of the committee—among them a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, two professors of law, and a respected judge—had been given a free hand to redraft any of the constitution’s 211 articles and select a referendum date. Key priorities for the protesters were the abolishment …

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