Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Unnecessary polarization over Egyptian referendum result

It's alarming how badly Egyptian liberals have taken their failure to persuade their compatriots to vote against the constitutional amendments in the referendum last Saturday and how quickly they have jumped to the conclusion that this was the outcome of some conspiracy between the military and the Islamists. The result, of course, was 77 percent in favour and 22 percent against. A common theme is that the Muslim Brotherhood, salafist groups and assorted sheikhs told people that voting 'yes' would be good for stability, law and order and economic recovery, as though trying to promote a point of view and influence people's choices was somehow undemocratic. They seem to have forgotten that the 'no' lobby ran full-page advertisements in national newspapers in the days leading up to the vote, featuring leading politicians and celebrities explaining why they would vote against. The most serious 'accusation' against the Islamists is that they promulgated their message close to polling stations and distributed sweets/candy to people who voted yes. The liberals are showing that they have very thin skins and little confidence in the good judgment of their fellow Egyptians. They are also unwittingly deploying the same elitist argument that Mubarak and the old ruling party used ad nauseam, both to foreign governments and at home in private – that Egyptians are not yet mature enough for democracy and need to be protected from their own choices.
The polarization around the referendum result, driven mainly by the losing liberal side but encouraged by a few salafis here and there, is quite unnecessary and could be counterproductive for the liberals, because it gives credence to the notion that everyone who voted 'yes' was an Islamist sympathizer who wants the Islamists to do well in parliamentary elections and dominate the process of drafting a new constitution. This notion is a fantasy and the liberals are foolish to promote it. Many Egyptians vote 'yes' for purely pragmatic reasons – they wanted to bring an end to military rule, move on to elections as soon as possible and end the uncertainty about the transitional process. They also trusted themselves and their compatriots to vote for a representative parliament that will set up the assembly to draft the new constitution. There's nothing sinister or undemocratic about that. The liberals, on the other hand, offered no convincing proposals for a mechanism to set up a constitutional assembly without national elections.
If liberals want to counter the Islamist alternative, they will have to argue their case on its merits and win people over in free debate. They should argue for universal human rights, including freedom of belief in its widest sense (including the right to change or abandon one's religion at will), gender equality and the sovereignty of the people. They can no longer hide behind the power of the state, as many of them have done for the past sixty years.
That said, there has also been some excessive and divisive rhetoric on the Islamist side. Al Masry Al Youm newspaper, for example, quotes Islamic preacher Mohamed Hussein Yaaqoub as saying that the referendum result was a victory for Islam. “The people said 'yes' to religion, and to those who say 'We can't live in such a country' we say 'You're free. You have visas for Canada and America.' We're not upset with those who said 'no', but now they know how big they are and how big religion is.” Addressing his own supporters, he added, “Don't worry. It's over. Now the country is ours.”


  1. If the yes & no votes add up to 110%, then there is indeed cause for alarm.

    More seriously, the point is well taken about overreactions on both sides. But that's just politics. I've seen plenty of comments from the liberal camp on Twitter etc that suggest they realize the need to focus their energies now on old-fashioned movement politics, getting into the provincial cities and rural areas to deliver messages face to face.

  2. On the numbers, thanks. A slip of the finger. Fixed it.

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