The more the Arab Spring has changed things in Egypt, the more they seem to have stayed the same. The just-concluded referendum on the new Constitution appears on the face of it to be a validation of the coup that deposed the Mohamed Morsi-led Muslim Brotherhood government last year, with preliminary reports pointing to 95 per cent or thereabouts of the voters voting in favour.
But on closer scrutiny, the claims to democracy made by the new administration — with army chief and minister of defence Abdel Fattah el-Sisi the man calling the shots — ring hollow.
Certainly, the Morsi government failed its mandate. The referendum it had held on its version of the Constitution in 2012 turned in a far weaker result with 64 per cent of the voters in favour of it. With the turnout slightly higher this time around as well — 36.6 per cent to 2012’s 32.8 per cent — it’s safe to say that the greater part of the population prefers the secular vision of the former to the Islamist one of the latter. With Morsi’s government showing itself to be far from inclusive in its time in power, leading the nation in the direction of a theocracy, it is not difficult to see why. But after three decades of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, it was crucial for the popular will to express itself through the democratic process. That process has been comprehensively short-circuited — first by the coup, and then by the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, now branded a terrorist organisation and driven underground.
Even more dangerously, el-Sisi and his cohort show every sign of subverting the institutional balance of power that is essential to the maintenance of democracy. It may criminalise the use of torture and pushes for translating international human rights conventions into domestic law — but it also grants sweeping powers to the army, police and judiciary, removing civilian oversight in a great many instances. In effect, it ensures that any government that comes to power will be run behind the scenes by the same elite that dominated the Egyptian political landscape through Mubarak’s time at the helm. The manner in which the interim administration has gone about arranging the referendum only underscores this. Dissent of any form has been prohibited; peaceful protestors calling for a no vote have been rounded up and journalists threatened and imprisoned.
These are not promising signs. Three years of turmoil might have led to a people desperate for stability to vote for the Constitution and give el-Sisi’s coup a patina of legitimacy — but scratch a little and the schisms in the Egyptian polity seem to be widening. It isn’t just the Muslim Brotherhood but left-liberal groups that boycotted the referendum as well, and are paying the price for their protests as the state’s security apparatus is turned against them. And with el-Sisi making noises about running for president as a patriotic duty — remarkably similar to Mubarak’s rhetoric when he first seized power — a retreat of the past is looking increasingly, depressingly likely.