The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Two important question on Egypt's referendum

Update: The results are in, 77% yes — more here.

While we wait for the results to be announced, it's worth taking stock of two aspects of yesterday's referendum — quite aside from the massive participation that is worth celebrating. But I'd like to explore some aspects of the referendum that I perhaps overlooked in my previous long post (I am sick and jet-lagged, so perhaps that omission can be forgiven) after some discussions I had today and looking through the comments on past posts.

1. Was the referendum fair?

I highlighted before that this was probably the fairest election Egypt has held in decades — from what I saw anyway. You did not appear to have the mass, widespread abuses of past polls — something that Jonathan Wright, with whom I was yesterday, also thought. Of course, it takes time for reports of fraud to spread. Some have surfaced, such as the claim that the ink is easily washable (although it appeared to be the same ink as past elections, where this was not so much of an issue). In some places ballots were not properly stamped, although this appeared to be more out of bad organization than malice. A report has emerged alleging that Boship Kirollos, a Coptic dignatary in Naga Hammadi, the site of the murder of seven Christians and a Muslim outside a church last January, said that Copts were prevented from voting because local officials feared they would choose no. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights details multiple infractions across the country. It's still too soon to see whether Egypt's civil society, as a whole, will see the referendum as fraudulent or not, and judge the fraud to have been perpetrated as part of an organized campaign by the regime as past elections and referenda were. Activists and tweeps are listing some fraud on Twitter under the #egyunfair hashtag.

There is a fundamental problem with how easy it is to vote multiple times, a problem that plagued previous polls. The phosphoric ink can be easily washed off, and there are no centralized databases of who voted, so people can vote multiple times at different polling stations. I'm not saying this happened yesterday, but the possibility is there and debating whether the referendum should have been held under such conditions is a legitimate question. There is a difficult problem that the voter lists are in dire need of overhaul, which is why voting took place only with a national ID card. I thought yesterday a good solution might, rather than expensive computers and a national online database, to have a system whereby voting officials can SMS the ID number of a voter to register it with a central database to check if he/she has voted before — before allowing the person to vote, the official would wait for an OK message from the central server. It would be relatively cheap to implement and use phones that everyone has (you would just need to give the officials credit and set up the database). In the end, the public's perception might simply be that the referendum was fair enough in times of national emergency.

2. Was the referendum framed correctly?

Perhaps the stronger argument is that the manner in which the referendum was held, even if fair, left much to be desired. In no particular order:

  • The commission that drafted the amendments, despite being headed by the respected jurist Tariq al-Bishri, came under criticism for its composition and for some of the amendments it proposed, notably on the national requirements of presidential candidates.
  • Eager to move things along, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces left little time for any campaigning (and actively discouraged the no campaigning) or for a national debate on the choice presented to be had. Many expected the referendum to be postponed until a few days ago. This allowed Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and regime elements to spread disinformation, such as that at stake was Article 2 of the constitution, which makes Sharia the basis of legislation in Egypt. The military could have allowed an extra week or two, but appeared to be moving fast because the no sentiment was rising in the media.
  • More generally, the MB and Salafists' objective alliance with the military left a sour taste in many's mouths. It was not illegal as such, but smacked of behind-the-scenes deal-making.
  • As one friend put it, the choice presented in the referendum was in some sense between no and no: "no to the current constitution but we'll amend it and then see about a new one", or "no to the current constitution even if amended." A better choice might have been between, "yes to the current constitution if it's amended" and "no to an amended constitution, let's start over with a new one." Many voters were understandably confused about what they were voting for, and there were multiple reasons to vote no and multiple reasons to vote yes — which is why you can't just say the noes were "anti-army" or "reformists". It's more complicated than that.
  • The post-referendum process is too uncertain: why elect a parliament rather than a president constituent assembly, why elect a Shura Council that's likely to be abolished, why have elections in one order rather than another, etc. The military's announced plan to have parliamentary elections in June is again too abrupt, why not have both elections in mid-September?

All this being said — I'm not hedging my bets here, just reflecting how difficult this question is — many of the recent referenda in the EU (Lisbon, Maastricht, Nice, etc.) have also had their ridiculous side, especially when one has to read a phonebook of legalese to (not) understand what one is voting on. I'm not about to hold Egypt to a higher standard than Europe. Drafting an entirely new constitution could have been a process that takes too long, particularly with the army in charge in the interim. There is something positive about getting back to civilian rule as quickly as possible. 

Yet, even so, this could have been done better. I'm not inclined to think that the army has an elaborate secret plan here, what it reflects is a slapdash, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach and, perhaps most crucially, concern about moving fast to avoid having divergent trends emerge within the military on how to proceed.