An Egyptian woman casts her ballot ticked with 'yes' in Cairo. AFP
Egyptians go to the polls today, for the third day, in a referendum on constitutional changes which will grant President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi the possibility to remain in power until 2030. Without the amendments he would leave office in 2022. A general-become-field marshal, he stepped into the breach after the army, with popular approval, ousted Muhammad Morsi who had been elected to the top job in 2012.
Egyptians began casting ballots on Saturday on the amendments which were approved by an overwhelming majority in the loyalist parliament last week. The amendments will extend the presidential term in office from four to six years and allow two terms. Sisi›s current term will be lengthened to six years, giving him another two years, and he will be permitted to stand for a third term. By that time he would have spent 16 years in office, just over half the time Hosni Mubarak was president.
The slogan of the campaign to secure a “yes” vote is an echo of the slogan adopted by Sisi in 2014: “Say yes to stability and security.” At that time a majority of Egyptians were swept up in “Sisi mania” and voted overwhelmingly for him. He won because after the 2011 Arab Spring uprising which swept Mubarak from power, Egypt had been unstable and Egyptians insecure. Sisi won 99 per cent of the votes in a turnout of 47.5 per cent. Last year he was re-elected by 97 per cent of 41 per cent.
The period after Mubarak fell was unstable because the “revolutionaries” who mounted mass demonstrations in iconic Tahrir Square and across the country were unable to replace him with an effective governing coalition. Liberals and leftists, who dominated the uprising, established new parties but did not make common cause. The only party with grassroots support, the Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1928, and its Salafist partner, Al Nour, won the majority of seats in both houses of parliament. Third largest was the New Wafd, the country›s oldest political party, founded in 1919.
Once it dominated both parliament and presidency, the Brotherhood did not reach out to other parties and civil society. Instead, the Brotherhood followed Egypt›s traditional practice of consolidating partisan power through appointments to political office and the upper ranks of Egypt›s vast bureaucracy. Instead of addressing the struggles of the mass of Egyptians, the Brotherhood focused on staying on. This was a fatal mistake. The Brotherhood did not even mend the roads or collect the garbage in Cairo. The people turned against the movement and it was driven from office.
To make matters worse the Brotherhood resisted by staging huge sit-ins in Cairo and, ultimately, resorting to violence. While Egyptians welcomed its overthrow, supporters mounted attacks on police stations and army positions and extremists, who kept a low profile during Morsi›s brief reign, have staged an armed rebellion in North Sinai.
The army, under Sisi, responded with a sweeping crackdown which was welcomed by a majority of Egyptians who simply wanted to get on with their lives. Since taking power Sisi has stepped up the campaign against the Brotherhood and added liberals and leftists, jailing men and women who played leading roles in the uprising as well as members of the outlawed Brotherhood. There are currently 106,000 detainees in Egypt, 60,000 of them political prisoners. In the run-up to the referendum, more than 120 people were arrested for campaigning for a “no” vote.
While some commentators argue Egypt has gone back to where it was when Mubarak was in power, they are mistaken. Sisi is far more hardline than Mubarak. A young Egyptian friend told Gulf Today that Egypt had changed an elderly, tired, lax ruler for an energetic young determined to make his mark. Sisi has done this not by carrying out reforms and improving the lot of Egyptians but by following history by building ambitious projects. The second Suez canal and a new capital in the desert are two projects worthy of pharaoh. He has capitulated to the diktats of the International Monetary Fund, imposed austerity, and cut subsidies on essential items, subsidies which benefited poorest Egyptians.
The government has increased the privatisation of public companies by selling off profitable firms and incurred massive domestic and foreign debts. Around 40 per cent of the state budget is used to service these debts.
The constitutional amendments not only provide for Sisi to stay on, but also give him control over the judiciary through the right to appoint high level judges as well as the prosecutor general. This means he and his entourage cannot be held accountable for their actions.
Taking a cue from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey who proclaimed the armed forces the “guardian of the state,” the amendments will empower the already powerful military as “the guardian of the constitution and civil state.” This elevates the military to a wholly new level. The military already owns or controls more than 50 per cent of the state economy and at least 10 per cent of the economy as a whole.
The picture is, however, not clear because the extent of the military›s involvement in the economy has always been shrouded in secrecy. Since 2014 the budgets of the Defence and Military Production ministries have been removed from the state budget, exempting them from public oversight. The amendments mandate the creation of an upper house and one or more vice presidents. A positive change involves reserving 25 per cent of the seats in the lower house of parliament for women, who are seriously underrepresented in government.
The test of the referendum will be in the percentage of voters who take part. Since 2011 Egyptians have voted repeatedly without seeing their situation improve. Turnout at the 2010 parliamentary vote, the last under Mubarak, was 10 per cent; participation in the 2015 assembly election was 28 per cent, just over half the turnout of the post-Mubarak 2011 lower house poll.