Egypt has a new constitution—but there is little fanfare in the streets. There are no celebrations in Tahrir Square or fireworks or singing and dancing. The country’s first constitutional referendum unofficially passed after a second round of voting Saturday, but not without claims of fraud and voter intimidation to the same tune as those against the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak. For the Muslim Brotherhood, the results legitimized their claims of widespread support, even as reports circulated of government resignations while votes were still being tallied.
Today’s Egypt is beleaguered from a tumultuous transition and jaded from the tottering pace of change. For the opposition, who took their grievances from Tahrir Square to the doorstep of the presidential palace and vehemently reject this constitution, the battle isn’t over. For as much as the Egyptian street has grown empowered these past two years, they claim that those who govern them haven’t changed at all.
In the weeks leading up to this highly contested vote, the country, which in 2011 united to overthrow a dictator, cycloned into a nation bitterly divided, with deadly feuds brewing between supporters and opponents of Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi. A November decree passed by Morsi granted him sweeping powers and immunity from judicial interference—and sparked fury across Egypt. The decision also prevented the courts from dissolving the committee drafting the constitution, widely criticized for its Islamist majority. After secular committee members walked off in protest, the remaining Islamist members scrambled to wrap up the draft constitution and submit it to the president for approval. The promise by members of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, is that the decree will be scrapped now that the constitution has passed.
“We will be calling for a sincere dialogue with others to bridge the gap and relieve tensions,” said Amr Darrag, secretary-general of the constitutional committee and a senior member of the Freedom and Justice Party. “We have always been calling for this, and I hope they get sensible enough to get seriously engaged this time.”
“Egypt is truly the country where the dead can vote, but the Christians can’t.”
The opposition cites several problems with the new constitution, including limits on human rights and women’s rights, as well as articles that broaden the powers of the executive branch. In June the country’s military generals—later ousted by Morsi—dissolved the Islamist-dominated Parliament. The president replaced the generals with Islamist loyalists and appointed his brotherhood allies to several key posts in the government. Morsi has promised new parliamentary elections once the constitution is implemented. Egypt’s opposition said Sunday that it will appeal the results of the referendum, claiming that it was tainted by “fraud and violations.”
“Either [the opposition] builds on the momentum of the last few weeks to make considerable gains in the upcoming parliamentary elections and stay relevant, or contrarily go apart and be brushed aside to irrelevance for years to come,” said Ashraf Swelam, former senior political adviser for secular presidential candidate Amre Moussa. “The sufficient condition for success is building a well-oiled, well-funded electoral machine and organization capable of turning millions to the ballot box, rather than to the streets.”
State-run newspapers reported that voter turnout was approximately 32 percent in the second round of voting—significantly lower than the 51 percent who voted in the presidential elections in June, which also suggests lagging support for the Muslim Brotherhood, once an indisputable force in this religiously conservative country. Widespread accounts of voter intimidation, particularly against the country’s minority Christians who fear the rise of Egypt’s Islamist groups, were reported in governorates across the country—something the government denies.
“The referendum was a travesty,” said Mahmoud Salem, a secular political activist and blogger known by the nom de plume Sandmonkey. Christian voters “were threatened not to leave their homes, were beaten at the polls, or found their names removed. Egypt is truly the country where the dead can vote, but the Christians can’t.”
Overshadowing the president’s latest victory was the resignation of his vice president, Mahmoud Mekki, on Saturday as voters lined up at the polls, which analysts say points to discord within the house of Morsi. In his resignation letter, Mekki wrote, “I have realized for some time that the nature of the political profession contradicts my nature as a judge,” and added that he had delayed resigning in an effort to resolve “the current state of political polarization.” The new constitution does not stipulate any requirements for a vice president in the government. Reports had also circulated that the country’s Central Bank governor, Farouk el-Okdah, resigned, a report the government quickly denied. Reports of el-Okdah’s resignation led many to fear a potential blow to the economy, which has suffered a significant decline since the popular uprising began nearly two years ago.
“Egypt’s economy is likely to get much worse before it gets better,” said Paul Sullivan, a North Africa expert and professor of economics at National Defense University. “So far the leadership has been responding to crises in awkward and haphazard ways. There seems to be no long-run strategic economic policy.”
Still, while many of the country's most vocal secular activists may have been silenced by this latest chapter in Egypt’s revolution, it is driving others to rally supporters more passionately than ever. “I am very hopeful because I know this constitution won’t last and it’s a farce—believe in the power of the people, in the revolution, and continue,” activist Gigi Ibrahim wrote on Twitter.