Sunday, 20 March 2011

Egypt's First Free Referendum: the High Price of Democracy

Yesterday saw Egypt’s first free referendum in sixty years, and the results come as a deep disappointment to the very revolutionary movement that made them possible- but that’s the price of democracy. Or rather, the price of democracy after sixty years of single-party dictatorship, during which the Nasser, Sadat, and most recently Mubarak regimes squashed all legitimate, secular opposition parties in favor of their own ruling NDP- leaving the only organized opposition to the underground, illegal, and religious movement: the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abolishment of the existing constitution, which gives such limitless power to the president, was one of the main demands of the January 25th Revolution, and in response the army suspended the constitution. Yesterday, March 19th, the Egyptian people were asked to vote for or against the re-instatement of an “amended” constitution, as opposed to scrapping this Mubarak-era document altogether and holding out for an entirely new constitution to be drawn up by a new, democratically elected body.
The proponents of democracy, represented by the various movements that had taken part in the revolution, as well as presidential candidates Mohamed Baradei and Amr Moussa- all lobbied for voting “No” to the amended constitution. Not only is the document deeply flawed, the democratic movements have not had the time to form parties, and the existing opposition parties, emasculated and hamstrung under Mubarak, have not had time to organize.
Only two parties lobbied for a “Yes” vote. Not surprisingly, they were the only two parties organized enough to take advantage of the early parliamentary elections that would follow upon adoption of the amended constitution: Mubarak’s NDP, shorn of its leadership but not of its country-wide privileges; and the Muslim Brotherhood, officially banned under Mubarak but highly organized and regularly fielding successful candidates as “independents.”
In the end, the “Yes” vote won. Put it down to fear-mongering about the instability inherent in continuing without a constitution; or to superior campaigning by the NDP and Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in the countryside, where voters vote for whom they know, rather than issues; or to exploitation of sectarian misunderstanding.
Whatever the reasons, the result is a heart-breaking lesson in democracy for the forces of democracy. And yet it should be a heart-warming one as well: 60% of the Egyptian population is estimated to have voted, waiting for as long as three hours in orderly lines- in a country where, for the past 60 years, election fraud was taken for granted and results favorable to the ruling party and president were a foregone conclusion. And the losers in this round of voting are accepting the results and promising to work with them, and try harder for the next round of elections. That is democracy. A beautiful thing to witness.

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